October is never the best month for a funeral, Emma decided, turning her collar up against the cold. The day was muggy and damp after a brief rainfall earlier. The sky, slate grey.
The vicar voiced his litany by the graveside, like a dirge, then he cast a handful of dirt into the open grave. Emma took some soil from the tray he offered and threw it onto her husband’s coffin. Others in the funeral party did likewise.
Annette, her sister, gave Emma a sad look, an arm around her gave a token hug of comfort. There were no tears. Emma wasn’t sad. She knew it was John’s time. It was a sad thing to happen, she thought, but not unexpected. Emma knew these things.
Annette was slightly shorter than Emma which led Emma to refer to her as my little big sister from time to time. Annette’s hair was long and sleek and dark, whereas Emma’s was cut into a long bob and dyed light. It was anyone’s guess what colour it was meant to be, but it had a mottled appearance, not unlike grey at the sides and underneath; probably the effect of too many hair dyes over the years. They both wore the same size clothes but being taller meant that Emma carried it better whereas Annette was prone to looking slightly overweight. Emma also carried her clothes better and even in the same outfit, Emma always looked neater and classier. Despite these differences, it was clear to see that they were sisters. Both had eyes that twinkled when they were joking and both laughed with their entire beings, great big guffaws when they found something funny, although it had been a while since they truly laughed.
Grandma Jean told her she had the gift. Women in the family did, though sometimes it skipped a generation. Emma’s mother didn’t have it. Nor did Annette. Emma didn’t care. She never wanted it. Jean told her not to be frightened of the gift. She should embrace it. The faces at the window, the voices, even the visions she had didn’t mean to scare. Most wanted help understanding that death and life are the same. Some didn’t recognise either. Emma didn’t want to help. She wanted to live, but as her family fell away, first her parents, now John, Emma found no comfort in the knowledge.
A caw broke her from this reverie. A crow, perched atop a nearby gravestone, blinked at her and ruffled its wings. Emma nodded. Then she shifted her gaze to the lady standing by a grave. The woman waved a greeting. Emma ignored her and turned away.
“Come on,” said Annette, guiding Emma away with her arm. “Time for the party.”
“There’s always a party, isn’t there?” Emma tried not to sound condescending. She and Annette had been there for each other when dad then mum died. Despite the well-meaning hugs and the half-smiles, Emma felt totally alone.
Emma had seen it in a dream. John clutching at his chest. Herself standing part from the group of mourners. As if she were a spectator. She woke that night to find John sleeping beside her. Just a dream, she tried to reassure herself. But she knew it wasn’t just anything. Dreams like that came true.
At the pub, the wake was just another out-dated ritual. John wasn’t going to wake. No bell would ring. She had urged her husband to complete the purchase of the new house. Their own was sold and she had to live somewhere once he was gone.
Gone! Emma laughed to herself at the irony. Nobody left. Death was another door we each open and pass through.
Annette was beside her. “You alright, love?”
Emma nodded. She could feel the tears now.
“Stay at ours tonight,” Annette said. A demand not an invite.
Emma nodded again. Knowing that soon she would move in and live at her new home. Then maybe she could be left alone, and happy at Breck Bank.
Breck Bank had stood alone for many years surrounded by swathes of Hop fields, the resource of seed merchants who serviced the declining breweries. According to the literature, Emma had studied while choosing her new home, the house had been built by Jacob Atkin in 1842, a romantic mediaeval gothic style and a reaction to the symmetry of Palladianism. Constructed with bricks of local clays and stucco, and with Welsh slate upon the roof. Wide sash windows peered like sightless eyes at what would have been Atkin’s livelihood growing from the earth but had been replaced by terraces of the red-brick rookeries of colliery houses when the coal mine, now gone, had been sunk in the 1920s.
Emma fell in love with the old house immediately. The lives lived there; Jacob and his wife Mary had raised their family in that house. She could sense the tears of laughter, love, and joy in the rooms, the sadness of loss and the long isolation of Jacob and Mary’s grand-daughter, Daisy, who had spent her final 30 years alone in the house.
The house had been redecorated throughout, central heating installed, carpets ripped up and replaced by parquet. A new boiler had been fitted plus water pumps to feed the en-suites of each of the four bedrooms. Despite its gentrified beginnings, there was no scullery or staff apartments. The Atkins, despite their growing fortunes, led a modest existence. Emma loved the prospect of solitude that beckoned, instead of a bustle of city life she had grown up with.
Annette tugged the wheel of the car, turning onto the final approach to the circle of former colliery homes, now privately owned, that circled Breck Bank nervously. The house looked dark against the Constable sky, a mural of grey clouds hugging the blue beyond. She pulled to a halt and Emma climbed out with, “Back in a mo'”
A thermostat had automatically turned the heating on that morning and Emma could still smell fresh paint. Though it was still only 2 pm, the house seemed dark, but Emma knew where her suitcase was and didn’t turn on a light. She found the case on the sofa where she left it earlier, intending to unpack after the funeral. She would be staying with her sister, but she had this feeling. The house needed company. it had stood empty for so long. Emma shrugged. She would move in soon. Closing the door as she left, there was a gasp of air from the foyer, almost as if the house was bidding farewell. Or begging her not to leave.
“I could have come in,” said Annette.
Emma smiled at her sister. “No need. It’s only a suitcase.”
As they pulled away from the circle, Emma looked over her shoulder. The house was dark again.
That night at dinner, Emma picked at her food, pushing vegetables about the plate with her fork. She noticed Annette watching her intently. Finally, Emma pushed her plate away and sighed. “I’m not hungry,” she explained.
“Quite normal,” said Tony, her brother-in-law. “We have food in the kitchen. Help yourself.”
Annette placed her knife and fork aside. “I’m worried about you moving into that house so soon,” she said.
“It’s my home!” Emma realised she was protesting. “John and I chose that house together. I feel closer to him there.”
“I don’t think you should be on your own,” Annette persisted.
“Why, what do you think I’m going to do?”
“Nothing, or course,” Annette replied gently. “Look, I’ll come and stay with you for a day or two. How’s that?”
Emma felt irritated. “There’s no need, it’s only a house!” She pushed her chair back and went to her room. Lying on the bed she could remember John mocking the estate agent after he’d shown them around the house; “No priest holes, fortunately, No bricked up nuns or screams from the oubliette – a perfect starter home for the young couple planning to raise a family.”
She smiled and shook her head wistfully. Emma would miss his sarcasm, but it was a shame about the bricked-up nuns, she thought. Every home should have at least one. First, there were shelves to put up in the kitchen. Tony was working all day, almost every day, and Annette was useless at DIY. That would keep her busy and distract her from the screams from the oubliette.
Emma moved into Breck Bank two days later. She was tired of living in someone else’s home, like an interloper, gate-crashing into Annette’s and Tony’s private lives. Annette would find things to do, to keep Emma occupied. She was in mourning, after all – let’s go shopping, go out for lunch, let’s see a film together. Why couldn’t she understand that Emma wanted to be left alone? In the end, Emma explained that it was time to move on and get on with her own life. Annette seemed hurt that she couldn’t go on mother-henning her sister, but Tony seemed relieved. He returned home from work late in the evenings, ate a hurriedly warmed up dinner he had missed hours ago and then fled to his room, almost satisfied that he’d done his duty with a hurried ‘hello’.
It was mid-day when she arrived, and the sun was overhead but still, Breck Bank looked dark at the crest of the hill. Emma let herself in and lugged her case directly to the bedroom where she unpacked the few belongings she’d taken with her to Annette’s. Unpacked, she sat on the bed and relaxed. She would have shared that bed with John, she thought. The sky beyond the window was blue, scattered with swirls of October cloud. Emma stood by the frame and studied the lawn. There was no garden of sorts. Breck Bank stood alone, cloistered among the circle of former colliery houses. There was a small patch of lawn surrounding her new home and circling that was a freshly painted picket fence. The gate to the path leading to her front door was open, though Emma was certain she had closed that. Emma shrugged. ‘Busy’, she thought. ‘It’s good to be busy’, and she had lots to do.
In the kitchen, Emma unpacked the shopping. Not a lot. She was only cooking for herself. Then she made coffee and moved to the lounge where she sank into the tall, high backed sofa. There was a small bump from upstairs. Something’s fallen off the bed, she realised. She’d sort that in a moment. Her mobile phone trilled.
“Are you settled in?” Annette asked.
“Good, I’ll be there soon.”
“There’s no need,” Emma tried to disguise the irritation in her voice.
“You need company,” Annette insisted. “The loss of John hasn’t hit you yet, and when it does, I want to be there for you!”
Emma sighed. “Okay,” she said, her shoulders falling, “bring a bottle.”
When she closed the call, there was another bump from upstairs. Irritated, Emma made her way to the bedroom. There was nothing on the bed, on the floor or beneath the bed. She quickly checked the other two bedrooms, but nothing was amiss. When she checked the bathroom, she found the clothes basket had fallen over, though it was empty. Emma righted it with, “Stay where you are this time!” She did wonder if the first sign of isolation madness was speaking to inanimate objects.
A knock on the door signalled Annette’s arrival. She brought with her a small case and a bottle of red wine. Emma gave the case a quizzical look.
“I thought I’d stay over,” Annette explained. “The company will be good for you.”
“You think?” Emma disliked the hurt look on Annette’s face. “Of course,” she said. “Plenty of room.”
She uncorked the wine and brought two glasses to the lounge. “There’s lasagne in the microwave, enough for two.”
Annette gave her a smile. “Sisters against the world, eh?”
Emma poured the wine. “Tony will be alright?”
Annette raised her eyes. “I left him a gammon joint in the slow cooker, and instructions.”
“He can’t go wrong with that.”
“You know Tony.”
Emma felt herself relaxing. “If he’s anything like John, instructions won’t make any sense at all.”
It was good to have Annette with her, Emma realised. Much like when they were children and inseparable. They ate the lasagne then Emma gave the plates and cutlery a quick rinse and placed them in the dish washer. Annette suddenly called to her from the lounge.
Emma found her examining the drawer of VHS tapes. “They’re obsolete now,” she explained. “Important stuff is on CD.”
“No, nothing like that. Films, mostly, and some home videos.”
Annette closed the drawer and opened another, searching for the DVDs. She turned to her sister. “Want to watch one?”
Emma felt herself shrinking. “I’d rather not.”
Annette returned to the sofa and put her arms around her sister. “Cry if you want to,” she said. “Netty’s here.”
Emma was limp in her sister’s arms. She couldn’t cry. She felt no emotion at all.
Emma nodded. She reached for her sister and held her tight.
They talked for some time. Family, mostly. Those who attended the funeral, those who did not. Later, when the wine had helped her relax and she could feel sleep’s pennyweights on her eyes, Emma showed her sister to a spare bedroom, then she went to bed, herself.
Emma had never had trouble sleeping. The wine helped, too. A knock at the bedroom door stirred her. Emma turned on the bedside light. The clock read 3:30 am. “Come in, Netty,” she called, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
She took a sip from the glass of water on her bedside cabinet and waited for her sister to come in. Instead, there was another knock.
“It’s okay, come in!” Emma was answered by yet another knock at the bedroom door.
Reluctantly, Emma got out of bed and slipped into her dressing gown. When she opened the door, there was nobody there. Emma sighed heavily with exasperation. She made her way to Netty’s room and peered through the crack in the door she’d opened. She noticed the fall and rise of the duvet as Annette slept. Closing the door gently, she whispered, “Thanks for waking me!”
Next morning, Emma found her sister eating toast in the kitchen. She poured coffee and said, “You were sleepwalking last night.”
“Who, me?” Netty replied with a mouthful of toast.
“Yes you, missus!”
“I think it was you,” Annette chided. “You woke me several times last night knocking on my door.”
“You were knocking on mine!” Emma was annoyed now. “Company would be good for me,” she said sarcastically. “Then you wake me up at silly o’clock.”
“Don’t you see?” Annette asked, “It’s happening already. I’m glad I was here; I only wish you hadn’t gone back to bed when I answered the door.”
“Happening? What do you mean happening?” Emma’s voice was rising.
“You’re acting out,” her sister explained. “I said it would happen.”
“Oh, hark at you,” Emma complained, “Annette bloody Freud!”
“We’ll share the bed tonight. When you wake up, I’ll be there with you!”
Emma could see no point arguing. Annette would insist until she was blue in the face. Nights of hiding under a duvet and giggling, as children, while Mum watched the Onedin Line downstairs had taught her she could never win an argument with her little big sister.
Annette returned home that day. A temporary visit to clean up, wash whatever needed washing and prepare Tony’s evening meal. Meanwhile, Emma tasked herself to putting up the shelf she had promised herself, in the kitchen. She knew where to put it, having surveyed and measured up when she and John had decorated. Together they had visited B&Q, a wholesalers of DIY equipment and resources. She had the wooden shelf, triangular metal supports, screws and rawl plugs. What she didn’t have was a drill. Emma cursed under her breath. The plan had been to return to the store and buy one, but events, including John’s demise, had overtaken them. She telephoned Annette.
“Got a drill?”
“Electric thing for making holes in walls.”
“Why would I have one of those?”
“To drill holes in walls?”
Emma heard Annette sigh over the phone, “Have you any idea how busy I am? Tony left his clothes lying all over, unwashed dishes. I have to wash and cook and clean – now you’re asking me if I’m Bob the Builder!”
“I’d really appreciate it if you have one,” Emma said as sweetly as possible, hoping her sister would drop everything she was doing and hunt for a drill.
“Wait there, then!”
Emma heard the phone rattle as the receiver was placed on a surface. She waited. Eventually, Annette returned. “No, we do not have a drill.”
Emma looked at the space beneath the cupboard where she had planned to fit the shelf. A handy and within reach resting place for herbs and spices.
“Yes,” Emma replied, realising her mind had wandered. “I’m not sure what to do about this shelf.”
“Hire someone,” her sister suggested, practical as ever. “Google or the local directory will help.”
“Of course. See you tonight?”
“When I’m done here.”
Emma replaced the receiver then returned to the lounge, opened her laptop and began searching for a handyman. It’s only a shelf, she thought, not a house. There must be someone!
She called several prospects. All seemed eager at first, until she gave them her address, then it was suddenly as if they lost interest: retired or got a job on were the usual excuses.
“But you seemed eager to do the job a moment ago,” Emma protested to the third tradesman she called.
“I’m getting on a bit, Miss,” came the reply. “Shouldn’t be taking on more than I can manage.”
Emma felt a knot tightening in her stomach. “That’s the third excuse I’ve heard this morning!” She put the phone down impatiently.
Relaxing with a glass of water seemed to help. Then she decided to take a walk around the estate. Clear her head. Perhaps when she was home she’d have a clear idea of what to do with the shelf.
Houses on the estate were very smart, not the dishevelled hovels one saw on the old films about coal mining families. Brand new cars were parked in the driveways. New windows and doors had been fitted and the brickwork pointed. Lawns and shrubbery fronting the homes were tidy and well managed. Emma turned a corner onto Petersmith Drive. Though the sun was shining, the air was cold and fresh in her lungs. Not a typical October day, but nothing recently had been very typical.
Along the drive, she came across a middle-aged gentleman painting his wrought iron garden gate. “Hello,” she greeted him brightly. The man turned his head and gave her a quizzical look. Satisfied that she wasn’t about to rob him, he lay his paint brush across the top of the tin of paint and placed the tin carefully on the ground. Taking a rag from the pocket of his overalls he nodded to her and said, “Ayup, duck.”
“Emma,” she said, introducing herself and offering a hand to shake. “I’ve just moved onto the estate.”
The man chuckled, “We get a lot of them nowadays, folk buying up old pit houses.”
“You were a miner?” she inquired.
“Aye,” came the reply. “Underground till t’pit closed three years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” she said apologetically, without understanding why, though she had read of the many who had lost their livelihood.
“Nowt to worry,” he explained. “Took my redundancy, was close to retirement anyroad.”
“Your house looks nice,” Emma observed. “Did you renovate it yourself?”
“Some of it, aye, I put windows in and did t’garden.”
“Can you do shelves?” Emma crossed her fingers behind her back.
“I can do that for you,” he replied, rubbing his hands with the cloth again.
“This afternoon, possibly?”
“No problem, you have the shelf ready to put up?”
“Yes I do, though I don’t have a drill.”
“I’ve got one, I’ll bring it round later. Where do you live?”
Emma uncrossed her fingers. “Breck Bank.”
It was like a cloud passed over her and the air was suddenly colder. The old man looked at the ground for a moment, then he shook his head. “I can’t this afternoon, sorry.”
“Ok, I’m sorry to have imposed,” she apologised, “would tomorrow be better?”
The man picked up his tin of paint. “Got to finish this gate off and I’ve got something on tomorrow.”
Emma breathed out slowly. “It’s alright,” she said. “Nice to have met you.” Then she turned around and walked home to Breck Bank.
Annette stayed at Breck Bank for a week. Then she went home. She missed her husband. Tony missed his wife. Emma missed her privacy. The night-time knocking happened once or twice but then desisted. The old house settled, and Emma was left alone with her thoughts. The following Monday she returned to work.
Emma worked as a software engineer for a small company in the city. Her role was to fix the bugs left in the software by the programming team. Technical writers would detail the application’s specification: input, throughput and anticipated output. The testing department would identify areas of the suite that failed the rigorous quality checks and the code and model system were then passed to Emma and her small team of developers to fix. Then it would return to testing for further examination until all problems had been resolved. Following this, the entire package was returned to development who would release it to the client and take all credit for the painstaking hard work.
On her first morning back at the office, colleagues were surprised to see Emma’s return. She excused herself, telling them she was bored at home and needed the distraction. She sat at her desk and began poring over the previous week’s notes. A chair was wheeled beside her and Carol, the HR manager sat down.
“Can’t keep away, eh?”
Emma smiled, relieved by the sound of a human voice that wasn’t Annette. “I needed company,” she explained.
“Of course you do,” Carol soothed, “but if at any time you need to go, just let me know, and disappear.”
“Thanks,” Emma replied, “but like I said, I need the company.”
At lunch time Emma took her maintenance team for a pub lunch at the Green Dragon, a popular venue for the firm and there was usually a crowd there. The team was Duncan, Andy, Simon, Darren and Jan, each in their mid-twenties and in their first job since graduation.
“How come you’re back so early?” Jan asked, sipping at a diet drink while a plate of burger and chips lay on the table before her.
“Missed me, did you?” Emma replied sarcastically.
“Of course we did,” Duncan said, his mouth full of food.
Finishing his meal, Andy pushed his plate away and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Hiding from the ghosts, aren’t you?”
Emma looked up from her meal, surprised, “Ghosts?”
“You’ve heard the rumours, surely?” Andy persisted.
“Oh, stop it, Andy!” Jan interjected. “You always do this!”
“Trying to spook us,” Jan was clearly annoyed. “You told us the office was haunted, remember?”
Andy lowered his head and looked away. “Oh, that. It was a joke.”
Simon and Darren were busy enjoying their meal, determined to keep out of it.
“What ghosts?” Emma asked, directing her voice at Andy.
“It’s nothing,” he replied, embarrassed.
“It’s just stories,” Duncan explained. “We used to play around Breck Bank when we were kids, scaring each other with stories of Daisy Atkin.”
“Such as?” Emma asked, suddenly intrigued.
“She died in that house,” Andy explained. “We used to pretend she was watching us out of the windows.”
“Nonsense!” Jan interjected. “You boys are such children!”
“It’s just children’s stories,” Duncan said evenly.
“Only the living can hurt us,” Emma insisted. “Not the dead.”
There were assenting nods from the team.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Emma continued. “Housewarming party, Friday night. If there are ghosts, you’ll meet them yourselves.”
“Now you’re scaring me,” Jan said. “Really?”
Emma smiled. “Andy’s not the only one who can joke.”
Emma returned home to Breck Bank after work. She closed the door behind her and stood in the foyer. The only light source was above her head attached to the ceiling. The stairs were veiled in darkness.
“If there’s anybody here,” she called, “You can talk to me.”
The response was silence. Emma was alone in the house.
With Annette’s help, Emma had prepared food for the housewarming. Assortments of sandwiches, pork pies, chipolata sausages. Various quiches and, of course, cake, home made by Annette, a lively creation of layers and cherries. Taking care to cater for all guests, there were also vegetarian options.
Friday was a half day at work and casual dress day. Andy, the joker of the team, had once typically worn a casual dress. Despite the laughs he earned doing that, he had been sent home to dress properly.
Emma hurried to lay out the buffet. It had been left overnight in the fridge protected by a sandwich wrapper. Wines had been chilled overnight, but not the beer.
Guests began arriving in the early evening. First, to show were Annette and Tony. Emma had invited everyone plus a guest. She had no idea if Jan was seeing anyone, and the boys were IT professionals and therefore unlikely to have a plus one. Soft music played from the cd player, the house was warm, coffee had been freshly brewed to give her home that relaxing ambiance.
Emma stood in the kitchen, her shoulder leaning against the door frame and with a glass of white wine in her hand. She was pleased with how well the housewarming was developing. Guests were seated; sofa, chairs, Simon was slumped into a huge cushion on the floor. Each had a plate of food in their hand and between bites were talking to each other. It was then that Jan rose from her seat and approached her at the kitchen door.
“Another slice of cake, if I may?” she inquired.
“Help yourself,” Emma replied, “but I thought you were dieting?”
“I am,” came the response, “but one slice of cake won’t hurt.”
“Two slices now,” Emma corrected her with a smile.
Jan gave a bashful nod. “I’ll stop at three.”
“No, three am.”
Emma turned aside to allow Jan to pass into the kitchen, then she took Jan’s empty seat in the lounge.
There was a sudden crash from the kitchen and Jan screamed. Guests froze. It was like a photograph. Mouths were open, words perched on lips like birds. Emma was in the kitchen immediately. A drawer of cutlery lay on the floor and knives forks and spoons lay scattered randomly. Jan was standing at the sink clutching her arm, her hands covered in blood.
“What happened?” Emma asked, examining the cut on Jan’s arm.
“I don’t know,” Jan’s voice was shaky. “There was a bang, and something hit me!”
“You must have caught the drawer as you walked by,” Duncan suggested. “Easy to do.”
“No, I didn’t!” Jan said with alarm. “I was on the other side of the room. The drawer just came out!”
“You need to take this to A and E,” Emma observed. The wound was deep, and she was unable to stop the bleeding. Instead, she took a tea towel and wrapped it round Jan’s arm, tying it like a tourniquet over the wound.
“I’ll take her,” Darren offered. “I’ve only had coffee. Everyone else has been drinking.”
Annette draped Jan’s coat over her shoulders while Darren led her out to the car.
“Drawer just jumped out?” Andy sounded unconvinced.
“That’s what she said,” Simon replied.
“She must have opened it accidentally,” said Duncan. “Drawers don’t open by themselves.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Emma apologised. “the housewarming was going so well!”
“It’s not your fault,” Annette soothed, her arms around her sister. “Just a silly accident.”
“It might have been Daisy Atkin,” Andy suggested, grinning broadly.
“Shut up!” Emma shouted. “This has been a disaster without your childish fairy stories!”
Andy backed away. “Oops,” he said. “Time to go.”
“Yes, you boys go,” Annette said scornfully. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Tony, I’m staying with Emma.”
“It’s not going how I intended,” said Emma, feeling herself shrink into her sister’s embrace.
“It was just an accident, like Duncan said,” Annette said softly. “Look on the bright side.”
“Is there one?”
“Of course there is! We have the last of the cake to ourselves.”
The knocking started again that night.
Emma turned on her bedside lamp. Annette was standing in the doorway. Her eyes were wide with fear. “There’s somebody in my room!” she said, her voice trembling.
Emma was out of bed in an instant. She took Annette’s hand and led her to her sister’s room. “Look,” she said, “there’s nobody here.”
Annette backed out of the room. “But there was!”
“You were dreaming,” Emma explained. “Too much wine.”
“No, there was someone there!”
“Oh, come on!” said Emma, exasperation in her voice. “Look, come sleep with me, it was just a dream.”
Annette was tugging on her jeans. “I’m going home,” she said, “there’s something in this house!”
Emma sighed. “What did you see?” she asked.
“An old lady,” Annette said. “Sitting in that chair in the corner. Watching me.”
Emma glanced at the chair. “That’s part of the house,” she said. “It was left by the previous occupant.”
“The previous occupant!” Annette’s voice was rising. Almost a shriek.
“It’s just a chair,” Emma explained, hoping to calm her sister.
“It’s Daisy Atkin!” Annette shouted, “Andy was right – she’s haunting us!”
“Don’t listen to Andy’s silly stories.”
“He said that he and Duncan could see her watching them from the window.”
Emma shook her head. “No, Netty, he said they used to pretend she was watching.”
“She was watching me tonight.”
“Come to bed,” Emma pleaded. “There’s only us here. Us and your dreams.”
Annette was angry now. “Don’t bloody patronise me!”
“Don’t go,” Emma said softly, her voice almost a whisper.
Annette seemed to shrink. “Okay,” she said. “But the light stays on.”
In bed, Annette suggested, “if Daisy Atkin is here, you’d see her?”
“Not maybe. Remember, Gran gran fluffy head could do it, too?”
Emma laughed. “Gran gran fluffy head, remember her?”
Annette brightened. “She was so funny.”
“Scary, more like,” Emma giggled, “remember the stories she told?”
“About the bodies in the graveyard?”
Emma giggled again. “Yeah, great bedtime stories.”
Annette laughed. “Did you ever sleep?”
“Hardly ever, but she was fun.”
Annette turned serious. “You have that thing she did, don’t you?”
Emma lowered her eyes, embarrassed. “Maybe.”
“Not maybe at all,” Annette said, accusingly. “You see dead people.”
Emma shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think, maybe.”
“What do they want?” Annette seemed naturally curious.
Emma shrugged again. “I’m not sure. Sometimes it’s as if they don’t notice me. Other times they wave.”
Annette embraced her sister. “Maybe,” she said, “you’ll see Daisy Atkin.”
Emma smiled. “If she’s here, I think I would have.”
“It was just a dream,” Annette said, relaxing.
“Yeah, just a dream.”
Emma woke the next morning to find Annette standing by the bed, dressed and holding her suitcase.
“I wanted to wake you before I left,” said Annette.
“Okay,” Emma replied, swinging her legs over edge of the bed. “Give me a moment and I’ll wave you off.”
Emma flung on her dressing gown and followed her sister to find her standing frozen halfway down the stairs.
Emma followed her down and enquired, “Are you alright?”.
When Annette turned, her face was grey and a line of sweat hung on her brow.
“Netty, what’s wrong?”
Annette lowered her head as if ashamed. “Something pushed by me.”
She began to sob.
“What?” Emma asked, suddenly curious.
“Nobody!” Annette was shaking. “There was nobody there!”
“So how do you..?”
“I felt them!” Annette stopped her. “I physically felt them push by me.”
Emma lay her arm across her sister’s shoulders. “You must have been half asleep still.”
“I was wide awake!” Annette retorted. “I felt them on the stairs!”
Emma took her sister’s hand. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go downstairs.”
Annette seemed to relax slightly at the foot of the stairs.
“See?” said Emma. “Nobody there.”
“I have to go,” Annette said sternly. “This place terrifies me.”
Emma gave a reassuring smile. “I told you last night, if there was something or someone here, I’d know.”
“Stories,” Emma suggested. “Nothing but spooky stories Andy’s filled your head with. But, if you need to go, okay. I’m staying.”
“Come with me!” Annette said, pleading in her eyes.
“No!” Emma replied. “This is my home, and I’m staying.”
Annette reached for the door but stopped and turned to face her sister.
“Something bad i’s going to happen,” she said. “I can feel it!”
On Sunday, Andy and Duncan chose to visit Emma in her new home. They were keen to enquire how she was settling in. Duncan pulled the car to the left, turning from the town’s main route and onto Briar Road. Above the crest of the incline before them, they saw the chimneys of Breck Bank rising as they drove up the hill. Gradually, the house seemed to emerge as they neared the peak of the hill.
“Are you certain you want to do this?” Andy asked, a tremor in his voice.
“Just a house,” Duncan replied. “Just a house.”
Andy raised his hands to give a spook-like appearance. “The house that Daisy Atkin haunts”
“One of these days,” warned Duncan, “you’re going to believe your own stories and scare yourself to death.”
The two men laughed.
As they passed through the gate toward the front door, Andy looked up to see a woman standing at an upstairs window.
“Look!” he cried. “It’s Daisy Atkin.”
Duncan looked at the window. “It’s Emma,” he said. “Stop being stupid!”
Emma answered the door. “Hey guys!” she said, “Come in!”
Emma made coffee while the men perched themselves on the sofa.
“Seen Daisy yet?” Andy asked.
Emma walked in from the kitchen carrying two mugs of steaming coffee.
“I haven’t had a wink of sleep,” she said. “Daisy was wailing and clanking her chains all night.”
Duncan seemed to stiffen. “Really?” he asked, nervously.
Andy started laughing.
Emma shook her head. “You boys!” she said.
“We called to see how you’re doing, boss”, said Andy.
Emma smiled. “I’m doing fine,” she said. “Though I have a shelf to fix up, but no drill.”
“I have a drill,” Duncan replied.
Duncan said, “No, it’s at home, but I can fetch it. I’ll have that shelf up in a jiff?”
“A jiff?” Andy asked.
“Promptly,” Duncan explained, giving his colleague a withering look.
“Thank you for your visit,” Emma said, gratefully. “Are you staying for dinner?”
“I’m going to nip home and fetch that drill,” said Duncan. “Then I’ll come fix that shelf up. Dinner sounds nice, thanks.”
Typically, Andy had to break the mood. “Where’s the toilet?” he asked.
“Door at the end of the landing.” Emma explained.
Emma watched Duncan drive away while Andy made his way up the stairs. She poured her second cup of coffee and sat down. Pleased that her shelf was about to be fitted.
Twenty minutes later, Andy still upstairs, Duncan returned with his drill and began measuring the site on the wall for the shelf.
There was a scream from upstairs.
Emma froze. “Andy!” Both she and Duncan ran up the stairs.
On the landing, Duncan paused, and said, “You know what he’s like, Em. He’s probably mucking about and trying to scare us.”
Emma replied, seriously, “He’s doing a bloody good job!”
The toilet door was ajar. They found Andy sitting on the lavatory, his trousers around his ankles. He was slumped back against the cistern. His head was turned at an unnatural angle. His mouth had fallen open and his eyes were wide open and staring with horror and something he had seen.
Duncan examined him. “Broken neck,” he said.
Emma began crying. Duncan held her in his arms.
“Police,” he said.
Emma nodded. Her forehead beating against Duncan’s chest. Tears staining his shirt.
While Duncan called the police on his cell phone, Emma turned to look at Andy one last time.
“Oh, Andy,” she said, softly. “What have you done?”
“Detective Superintendent Tolland,” said the police officer when Emma ushered him into her home. He was followed by two other policemen, but they didn’t introduce themselves. Duncan stood behind Emma, his hand reassuringly on her shoulder.
Emma introduced Duncan to the police officers, explaining that he was her friend and colleague, same as Andy, and they were visiting for lunch. She explained that Duncan had been fitting a shelf.
Emma made tea and they all sat in the lounge.
“Shelf?” asked Tolland.
“Yes,” Duncan replied, his voice subdued. “In the kitchen.”
“I’m sorry that I must ask,” Tolland began, “but was there animosity between Andy and Duncan?”
“No, not at all,” Emma replied, her voice carried a tone of shock, as if anyone should suggest such a thing. Duncan, behind her, shook his head and shrugged.
There was a knock at the door. Emma answered to find the medical examiner with his bag and his mobile phone in hand. He spoke in hushed whispers with the police officers for moments, then he and the subordinate officers climbed the stairs.
“You’re a widow?” Tolland asked.
“Yes,” Emma replied, sadly. “John and I had bought and furnished this house before his heart attack.”
“And you live alone now?”
“My sister stayed with me the first week I was here, but I’ve been on my own since.”
Emma gave Tolland Annette’s details.
Another knock at the door. This time a female police officer. She introduced herself to Emma. “Detective Sergeant Karen Peake,” she said. “I’ll be the acting SIO. Is there anyone you can stay with during the investigation?”
“My sister,” Emma suggested.
“Very well,” Peake replied. “If you can gather some belongings, I’ll take you there now.”
“But this is my home!” Emma protested.
Peake explained, “the investigation will focus on the house, you see? There might be a lot of disruption.” She nodded conspiratorially. “It’s for the best.” Then she turned her attention to Duncan. “You come with us, too. I will need to take statements from Emma and yourself, and the sister.”
Footfall on the stairs announced the return of the Medical Examiner. He shook his head at Tolland and the two exchanged whispers. Then he spoke softly into his mobile phone.
Peake explained, “someone will come and collect the deceased.”
“Deceased?” Emma gasped.
“Andy,” said Tolland.
On the way to Annette’s home, Peake explained that the M.E. had found no sign of trauma.
“But his neck was broken!” Duncan protested.
Emma shushed him and shook her head.
DS Peake took statements from Emma, Duncan and Annette. After she left, Annette began crying.
“It’s that house!” she wailed.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Emma said, trying to pacify her sister.
“No, I mean it,” Annette persisted. “I did feel something push by me on the stairs that time.”
“Houses can’t hurt people,” Duncan suggested.
“That house killed Andy!” Annette shrieked.
Emma embraced her sister. “There’s nothing in that house,” she said, her voice calm.
“I know, you said so!” Annette persisted. “You claim you can sense things, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there!”
Duncan chuckled. “It must be Daisy Atkin.”
Emma snapped at him angrily, “Don’t you start!”
Emma moved back into Breck Bank six weeks later. Andy’s death had been a case of misadventure. There were no signs of a struggle or trauma. His neck had simply broken. His medical records showed no sign of skeletal weakness. He cried out when his neck broke. That was it. Nothing more. Annette didn’t believe it. She was convinced the house had killed him. Emma felt she knew better. She sensed these things. There was nothing in that house that could have killed Andy. No ghosts. If there had been, Emma would have sensed them. Stories of Daisy Atkin were no more than children’s spooky tales they conjured to scare each other. Neighbours felt the same. Nobody liked Breck Bank. During her first night home, Emma decided to investigate.
She returned to Breck Bank on Saturday mid-day. Daisy’s bedroom had been through the first door to the right of the corridor from the top of the stairwell. Emma unpacked her belongings there, and moved in. It was her room now.
By four p.m. the light was fading. Emma sat on the bed, leaving the curtains wide open. Streetlights cast their glow through the glass, stretching shadows from the window frame across the walls.
“John,” she said, calling out to the emptiness. “If you’re here, come and talk to me.”
There was no response. She knew John had passed over. How? She just knew these things. If his ghost was in that house, she would have seen him by now. She kind of wished that she had. Emma missed her husband. Her mother? Her father? Emma had seen her mother once, back at her parents’ house. She woke one night to find her mother’s shade standing by her bed, like a shadow, leaning over and watching her. Smiling. Emma had reached out to her, but the shadow dissipated.
Maybe a Ouija board would help? she thought. Then she chuckled mirthlessly. Ouija boards, tarot cards, scrying into a mirror; these things created an ambience of expectation. Like walking through the halls of a haunted mansion in the dark. If someone expected to see a ghost, then they would. It could be a flash of light. A shadow. Adrenaline was flowing and nerves on edge. Whatever the person saw would be a ghost. The man on the moon, for example: shadows created by craters on the moon gave semblance of a human face. Early humans would see this face. It was a person watching them in the night sky. A ghost. Badly ventilated rooms and halls, such as the tunnels beneath Coventry Cathedral, created infrasound. This affected the senses in peculiar ways. Hairs on the skin would rise. Eyeballs would tremor. Like the effects of tinnitus, people would hear voices, feel they had been touched by unseen hands. Therefore, Emma turned the lights out. She wanted to create that ambience. And Daisy Atkin? Emma knew nothing of her save stories that Andy and Duncan had told. Daisy standing at the window watching them play. The human brain made sense from unrecognised patterns. A pattern of light – a ghost? Walking from an area of dark into a lightened room, the iris would shrink, to protect vision from excessive light. During that moment as the iris changed shape, the viewer might see a blur of movement. The brain would attempt to fit this to a known pattern. A face? A human figure? What of the white-haired woman in Annette’s bedroom that night? Emma knew this was a mirage created by sleepy eyes adjusting to wakefulness.
“Daisy,” she said. “Are you here?”
No response. Emma heard the drone of a car passing. The engine whined as gears changed and the car turned the corner and sped away from Breck Bank.
Once the car had past, the house seemed to shrink into a cocoon of silence. Emma felt a pressure of air around her. She closed her eyes and listened. There were no sounds from outside. No sound from within. It was as if the house was closing in around her. Then the knocking began again.
Emma opened the bedroom door but there was nobody there. She scanned the corridor left and right. Again, nobody. It was then she realised the knocking came from the front door. Emma descended the stairs and opened the door. Outside, there was a bespectacled man dressed in parka. With him were a younger man and a young woman. The man offered his hand.
“Hello,” he said, “my name is Doctor Tim Barker. I’m from the university’s School of Social Sciences.” He gestured to the two-younger people with him. “These are but two of my students from the school’s Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Group. May we come in?”
Emma shrugged. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“If you’ll allow us in,” said Barker, “I’ll explain. It’s cold out here.”
Emma made tea and the four sat in the lounge. Barker opened his case and withdrew some papers. “It’s like this,” he said, “your sister, Annette, contacted me at the school and suggested we look around the house, especially after a young man died here.”
She studied the paper he gave her. “Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology? What has that to do with Breck Bank?”
Barker shook his head. “People who see ghosts,” he went on, “see them, we believe, at a psychological level.”
“I haven’t seen a ghost,” Emma demanded. She felt like telephoning Annette and shouting at her. How dare she involve some crazed academic!
“Annette has shared her experiences with us,” Barker explained. “The sensation of being pushed on the stairs. The knocking. The woman in her bedroom. There’s something happening in this house and all we wish to do is lay some instruments in the rooms, motion sensors, cameras, microphones, EMW sensors. Paul and Jill, my students, will visit each day and take recordings from the instruments. There will be no disruption.”
“What about me?” Emma asked. “Has it occurred to you that I might not appreciate you listening in to my telephone conversations, taking photographs of me? I live here. It sounds like disruption to me!”
Barker gave her a white handset. “This apparatus can activate the sensors remotely,” he said. “You can turn them on before you sleep. You can turn them off when you wake. That’s all we ask of you.”
Emma took Barker’s hand. “There are no ghosts in this house. I’ll prove it. You took your bachelor’s degree at Sunderland. Your masters at Manchester. You researched your PhD at Liverpool. Does that tell you anything?”
“You’ve googled me?”
Emma laughed. “I don’t habitually research people I’ve just met and prior to that had never heard of!”
Barker gave a nervous smile. “You’re sensitive,” he said.
“Yes I am,” Emma snapped. “There are no ghosts in this house.”
“Andy Burnham’s death?” Barker asked.
“Necks don’t just break,” said Jill.
“Oh, it speaks!” Emma snarled. “Somebody muzzle it!”
“She’s right, though,” Barker suggested.
Emma gave a mock gasp. “Are you telling me,” she asked, “that my life is in danger?”
Barker shuffled his papers back into his case. He smiled at Emma. Aware of how unconvincing he was.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
The following day, Emma paid a visit to her sister.
“What the hell were you playing at?” she enquired angrily, “reporting me to a paranormal investigator?”
“I did not report you,” Annette replied. “I contacted the social sciences school, that’s all. I’m worried about you!”
“I’ve told you before,” said Emma, “there’s nothing to be worried about.”
“Andy died in that house!”
“Oh, come on!” Annette argued, “you can’t possibly be that naive.”
Emma was furious. “If you’re really that concerned,” she said, “come back with me. You’ll see for yourself there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’ve seen,” Annette answered. “I saw and felt things at Breck Bank. Wild horses couldn’t drag me back there!”
“That’s right. Stick your head in the sand, Netty.”
The sisters glared at each other for moments. Then Emma said calmly, “Breck Bank is my home. You stay here if you wish. Nothing is going to happen to me.”
When Emma left the house, Annette slammed the door after her.”
She found the female student waiting for her at Breck Bank.
“Jill Paget,” said the girl, offering her hand. “I’m here to take readings from the instruments.”
Emma waited patiently while Jill took the readings. Finally, the student returned to the lounge.”
“Anything?” asked Emma.
“We won’t know until the recordings have been analysed,” Jill replied. “Either Paul or I will be here tomorrow.”
After the student left, Emma sat in the armchair with a strong cup of coffee. She found herself mocking the student, “We won’t know until we analyse… back tomorrow…”
The night passed uneventfully. The following afternoon, when Emma returned home from work, both Paul and Jill were waiting for her.
“Find anything?” Emma asked.
“We’re not sure,” Paul replied.
“An image was captured in one of the bedrooms,” Jill suggested.
“Human?” Emma asked.
“Might have been,” Paul answered. “Partial. It was a blur of movement.”
Emma shrugged, “Car headlights on the camera lens as it drove by.”
“Possibly,” Jill replied. “Pareidolia – we see what we want to see.”
“I’ll leave you ladies to discuss,” said Paul. “I need to take those readings.”
Emma watched Paul climb the stairs, then she said, “Humans invented ghosts.”
“Exactly,” Jill responded. “Our ancestors tried to explain tricks of light.”
“Like the Borealis?”
A scream sounded from a bedroom and Paul came pounding hurriedly downstairs. Emma and Jill stood abruptly from their seats. Blood oozed from scratches on the left side of Pauls face.
“Something hit me,” he said.
Jill had taken a tissue from her bag and was dabbing at Paul’s wounds.
“Poltergeist activity,” said Paul.
“I’ll complete those readings,” Jill offered.
“Take care,” Emma said. “don’t risk being attacked, too.”
“I doubt there’s any risk of that,” said Jill.
Paul took the tissue from her and held it to his cheek. “What makes you say that?”
Jill explained, “Only Andy and you were hurt, Paul. I suspect that whatever’s here, has a grudge against men.”
“That’s not true,” Emma interjected. “My colleague, Jan, was injured here at the housewarming party.”
Suddenly excited, Jill asked, “What happened?”
“A drawer opened by itself and cutlery flew everywhere. Jan was cut by a knife. My husband had been here several times,” Emma said, “but nothing happened to him.”
“Where did he die,” asked Jill.
“Well, here,” Emma replied. “In this house.”
Paul and Jill exchanged looks. “Where in the house?” asked Paul.
Emma raised her hands to her open mouth. Tears stung her eyes. She said, “Daisy’s bedroom.”
“Take those readings,” Paul instructed. “We need to take this to Doctor Barker.”
“And you,” he continued, looking to Emma, “You need to get out of here. Stay with your sister, perhaps?”
Emma’s hands dropped to her sides. She stood upright. “Not a chance,” she said, determination colouring her voice. “I’m going nowhere. That thing killed John!”
The following day, Emma searched for records of Daisy Atkin. There was nothing on Google or Wikipedia. It was like Daisy had never existed. It was at the records office at the city’s High Pavement that Emma found her on the microfiche collection. Daisy Atkin, Born 1882. She had spent almost her entire life in a wheelchair, crippled by Poliomyelitis, until her death in 1960. Unmarried and childless, Daisy died in a fire at Breck Bank. She spent her final thirty years alone at the house after her live-in carer abandoned her.
Is that why she was so angry, Emma wondered. She hoped that after returning to the house, she could attempt to contact Daisy, maybe even help her cross over.
Back at the house, she lay on her bed – Daisy’s bed – and she breathed deeply until she felt herself seeing images behind her eyes, a precursor, she knew, to sleep. It is in our dreams they contact us.
Emma was woken by urgent hands. It was Annette.
“Wake up!” her sister urged, “There are people here.”
In the lounge she found Dr Barker and several his students, including Jill Paget.
“I need you and Annette to remain in the lounge,” said Barker. “The students and I will be in the bedrooms.”
“Dying?” asked Emma, innocently.
Barker smiled. “Hopefully not,” he said. “We need to gather evidence. We can then present this to Brian Damrill, the exorcist, who then might be able to cleanse your home.”
“Cleanse?” Emma seemed unconvinced. “You said it’s psychological, that I’m psychotic.”
“That’s one rationale,” Barker, continued. “But your husband and Andy Burnham’s deaths, and Paul’s wound betray that theory. There’s something physical occurring here, something menacing and violent.”
“What evidence,” Annette asked. “More wounds? Another death?”
“I think we have enough of those,” Barker said curtly. “What we really need are analytical evidence. Photographs. Recordings.”
Emma waved her hands dismissively. “Go then,” she said.
Annette looped her arms through her sister’s. “I hope they don’t bring something down here,” she said.
“Why not go home, Netty?” Emma asked. “You’re spooked enough already.”
“Not while you need me.”
Bumps and footsteps and muted voices could be heard from the bedrooms. Then a shout.
“You stay here,” said Emma, removing her sister’s arms from around her own. She climbed the stairs.
Men and women, students, were running from the bedrooms. Blood was pouring from a gash over one man’s eyes. A female student ran, clutching her arm. The arm was twisted at an unnatural angle. Obviously broken. Dr Barker came crashing through a door. His head hit the wall with an audible thump. Clutching his head, he began running for the stairwell. He shouted, “Go! Go!” As he passed Emma, he tried to reach for her, but she pulled away.
Strong hands gripped her shoulders and pulled her backwards into Daisy’s bedroom. The room was aflame. Emma managed to pull away and ran from the room. The entire corridor was on fire.
A loud crash sounded as the burning stairwell collapsed. Emma knew she was trapped. She realised the only way out was through a window, but heat from the flames forced her back. She screamed.
Annette stood in the road outside Breck Bank. She could see windowpanes shatter and flames burst from them. People were running from the open front door. She heard sirens in the distance.
When Dr Barker reached her she said, “Emma?” He turned to face the house. Shaking his head. He said, “Oh, no!”
A boom permeated from the depths of the house as something exploded. Flames suddenly erupted from the roof.
I have been a writer for some years, independently publish poetry and short stories including the genres: children's fiction, action, romance, paranormal, history and fantasy. Following discharge from the RAF, I trained as a computer programmer and spent the rest of my career in computer software development and engineering, until retiring due to ill-health.