Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Woman at the Door

Most people think that ghosts are the spirits of dead people. I would have said that myself, if I’d thought about it at all. I’m from Washington DC. Last year, my wife and son were killed in an automobile accident on the Beltway and after that I had to get as far away as possible. My father originally came from Scotland. Maybe that’s why I went there. I looked for property to buy through the Internet. It was cheap and I found that I could afford a fortified tower house dating from the Middle Ages. The picture showed it made of red sandstone, surrounded by trees with water - maybe a lake in the background. By profession I’m a doctor so I had some cash, and I knew my house in Bethesda would sell quickly. And that was that, I wasn’t thinking straight, I just bought the tower and went to the middle of Scotland.
            I didn’t have to work, and I realise now that isolated me. I used to lie in my bed at night listening to the wind howling round the tower and imagining the emptiness around me. Scotland is mostly empty: there are mountains and marshes and forests but nobody lives there. The highways are empty too, twisting through bare glens or thick plantations of pine trees. My house was empty too. I had a bed, a portable CD player and some books that lay in piles on the wooden floors gathering dust. The previous owners had left lots of plates and cutlery behind so I had something to eat with – when I ate at all.
            I bought some canvases and oils in the tiny local art shop and started to paint, but the images I drew frightened me. I used to sit for hours looking out of the top window over the bleak moorland in the direction of the invisible ocean. It wasn’t that I’d made a wrong move - there was no place on earth that I would feel comfortable in.
            The electrical supply in the tower was pretty unreliable. The lights used to flicker all the time. Sometimes they’d be off for hours. I always had candles ready. Of course there were noises - the place was six hundred years old. But then I started to almost see things out of the corner of my eyes, but there was never anything when I turned to stare.
One Sunday morning, the wind dropped and the silence of that empty landscape dragged at my nerves. I was standing by the window, looking out, wishing for something to happen. Then all the knives and forks in the kitchen drawer started to rattle. The jangling metal sound sent me rushing to the kitchen. The drawers were still closed but I could see them shaking and banging about. I began to shiver and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Something unnatural was happening. And in the middle of it I heard a hammering on the front door as if someone was coming to get me. I stood there, half in half out of the kitchen, watching the drawers shake and listening to that knocking, repeated again and again: summoning me.
And then the knives stopped their infernal racket. I stood cold but sweating and I realised the knocking on the door had stopped too. I ran and pulled it open. I heard a car pulling away, but there was nobody there.

I didn’t sleep that night. I just lay there in bed listening for the knives to start rattling again, looking at the electric light frightened it would die away. When morning came I felt unwell with lack of sleep. I got up and went for a walk over the moorland, watching the wind bend the reeds, listening to the mournful cry of the curlew. When I got back there was a car parked in front of the Tower. The woman opened the car window as I got close. She was about thirty five years old, straight dark brown hair down to her shoulders. Her face tapered to a determined looking chin but her lips full, making her look sulky. She had very dark eyes and strong eyebrows. I would have said she looked Mediterranean, but she spoke with a Scottish accent. “I came yesterday, but you were out.” She got out of the car. She was wearing clothes made for hiking – waterproof jacket and a thick roll necked black sweater. “I’m Alice Bell, your neighbour.” She extended her hand.
            I shook it. “I didn’t know I had any neighbours.”
            She laughed. “Five miles, but I’m the closest. I thought I’d be neighbourly.”
            I’d been lost in my own thoughts for so long, I’d forgotten how to behave. “Come in. You want a coffee? I haven’t got any milk I’m afraid.”
            “Black’s fine.”  She smiled but she was looking at me strangely.
            She sat down gazing round at the emptiness of the kitchen. I opened the drawer quickly and pulled out a spoon. She laughed. “Do your drawers bite?”
            “I beg your pardon?”
            “You looked like you thought the drawer was going to bite you.”
            I put the coffee down on the table in front of her. “Sorry the place is so bare. I haven’t gotten round to buying any furniture yet.”
            She shrugged. “What do you think of Scotland?”
            “Very beautiful. A bit lonely.”
            She told me she lived with her sister who was an artist of some kind. She was thinking of moving to Edinburgh for a bit of culture. I found her easy to talk to. I hated myself for even realising she was attractive so soon after Elise, but I told her everything. She put her hand on mine. “I’m so sorry.”  I began to cry. I couldn’t hold it back and it came out like a dam bursting. I tried to control myself but I felt wails of grief form the gut rising out of me, but removed, like it was from someone else. She lent me a handkerchief - still pitying. Then, after she’d calmed me there was a long, peaceful silence until she looked at her watch. “I have to go. You must come and visit us.”
            I watched her drive away and I felt a lot better than I had for a long time. I listened to music through my headphones until it was time for bed. As I washed at the handbasin in the chill bathroom, I looked up at the mirror in front of me. I would have expected Elise or my boy, but not my dead father.

After the first time I saw my father, five years dead, all around the Tower. Unexpected, he would come and I would look up from my book to find him at the bottom of my bed, or turn round as I was going out of the door and find him standing behind me. I had loved my dad in life, but now he said nothing though I shouted at him to go away. He just stood there smiling. Looking at me like he knew something I didn’t, flickering like an old fashioned projector film, vanishing and returning. I was terrified of him. I thought of leaving but he was my father – it was not the Tower he’d come to, but to me.
            I said nothing to Alice. We started to see each other often: the only two living people in that empty land. She drove me everywhere – to the sea, to the long white unpopulated beaches. The beauty of the place was almost unbearable – people didn’t matter to it. As she drove she would chat about her sister – who was never at home – or about what she was going to do when she moved to Edinburgh. I watched her silently, looking at the way the soft dark hairs curled up from the back of her neck where her hair was lifted up and pulled into a pony tail.
            And at night when she was gone, he would return. Standing there smiling - silent and evil. And he wasn’t the only one.
            One night, from the middle of nightmares I was dragged awake. A huge weight sat on my chest. I could hardly breathe. It pressed down on me and I stretched out my hand for the bedside lamp switch. The weight was heavy on me, seething and hissing, whispering obscenities in my ear. I flicked the switch but the light didn’t come on. I pushed up with my hand and felt long hair and a woman’s face. It bent down towards me again and said, “It’s me – it’s Elise”.

Hell isn’t a place. It’s where you are. After that there were always two of them – my father and Elise. Elise was punishing me for Alice. So when Alice came round I would stand while she hammered on the door. She must have known I was in but eventually she would give up and go away. I slept during the daylight and sat up all night with the lights on. But then every night the electricity would go and Elise would come again.
            I got very sick. I didn’t wash, I talked to myself. I even heard myself laughing, but I don’t know what I thought was funny. The last thing I wanted to do was eat and so I became weak. He was always there now, but she only came when it was dark. It went on and on, night after night.
            I got so weak that I thought I might die. I left the door open in case any one came. But no one did.
            And then Alice returned. She found me asleep on the couch. “You look dreadful. What on earth’s the matter?” She wanted to ring a doctor but I told her it wouldn’t help. She made me wait there while she went and got some food. That night she cooked me a meal and all the while kept asking me what was the matter. Finally I told her. I said, “I keep seeing dead people.”
            I hadn’t expected her reaction. She collapsed into the chair and buried her face in her hands. White faced she looked up at me. “I’ve brought them to you. I’ve infected you.”


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