by Sarah Milne Das
It is Sunday in the attic, and a girl lies on the bed, weeping. Her sobs are desperate and noisy, unconstrained as an infant’s. She is scared to look up, scared to know what is happening around her. She whispers, “Am I mad?”
It is Monday, and there are people I do not know inside Iremonger House. It is not the first time – people come and go and live and die – but the first time in a long time, I think. I have been almost sleeping, almost dreaming, almost forgetting the house around me; now I am jolted back into such consciousness as is allowed me.
Three voices. Two girls, a boy. They clatter and call to each other like squawking birds. Perhaps they will not come upstairs.
I hear clambering and perhaps, after all, I am not sorry. It has been a long time. A girl pushes the door first and sneezes as dust swirls around. Then, as her features uncrumple I look at her face and I see his face.
It unguards me, seeing those bones, that jaw and brow and temple. In that moment she sees a flash of me and she reaches out, entranced. Then there’s nothing again in front of her and she crinkles her small nose. I know she smells lye.
Footsteps, light and heavy. Voices, male and female. They’re here now, the other two, with faces their own and not of the past.
“Mummy, Daddy, a lady a lady…” the girl babbles and is indulgently ignored. They are not two girls and a boy then, but mother, father, daughter. They all look like children to me.
They talk like babies playing grown-up: investment, refurbish, gut the place. Rental markets and nest eggs.
It is Tuesday and it is quiet. The men have melted away until the next time, the next day. They come, they carve up the house, they shout, voices blaring and boots stamping. They go, I suppose they sleep, and slowly their comings and goings transform the house.
I have forgotten how to measure the distances of time. What is a day among so many days, what is a second, a month, or a year. The men have been coming for minutes or centuries. Weeks, it must be, though. Weeks.
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, this I remember, this is my almanac. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday again and again and again. When the rhythm of days is lost, the rhythm of syllables makes my anchor.
Still Tuesday, and I am wrong. The men are not all gone; two sets of footsteps are left. They are climbing up to the attic, and this is new – the men never come here.
The first to enter is a beautiful boy, he walks as if he has never been troubled. His loping stride reminds me of a young man I once admired.
I will not think of that.
He walks like a prince in his ugly boots, though his hands are calloused and he’s dusted all over. He looks up to the skylight and down again, pulls a forgotten old trunk from a corner, and settles it below.
“Sure that’ll take you?” the other man says. He has been standing, silent and watching. He is trying to sound impatient, but I am old now and I know the sound of yearning.
A flashing, dashing, smile, and he’s up, hauling his body with muscled arms til he’s sitting on the skylight edge, shins swinging inside the attic.
“Well?” says the man inside.
“I can see it! By the church. That’s my mum’s house, just there – I know the chimneys, I’ll give them a wave.”
The other man barks a laugh; he wants to be gruff but his eyes are light, and his lips curve into a secret joy.
“Pass my phone, could you?” the boy calls down. “I want to take a picture, show her what the view from the big house looks like.”
A throw, a click, and that’s it – he leaps down and is inside the attic again. But his careless words have made me remember, made me feel things the long-dead forget to feel. I had a mother once, and I miss her I miss her I miss her and how she was proud of me then, so long ago. I hope she is dust now, her heartache ended. I hope that she does not remember.
“I’d best lock up now, come on then,” the older man is saying. But neither starts to move just yet, the attic has bewitched them.
“It’s a nice house, this,” says the boy with the mother, a wistful note in his voice.
“Lucky for some,” the man agrees. “Old family property.”
The boy nods absently, but his attention is elsewhere. “Do you hear church bells?” he asks.
“No, I don’t hear anything. Anyway, it’s not Sunday.”
It is Wednesday, and today the girl with his face comes to find me. I have been waiting for her since they came to live in Iremonger House. Her mother and father I have seen often: they bring boxes and cases up to the attic, but they never bring the girl.
She comes because she remembers that fleeting glimpse of a figure. She remembers the lye.
Tentative but determined, curious, not frightened, the girl creeps in like one who knows they are somewhere they have been forbidden. “Hello,” she whispers cautiously, “Hello, are you there?”
The girl gazes around her, searching for a clue. Looking up, she sees the skylight, sees the sky and this inspires her. “Do you live on the roof?” she says. Unanswered but undaunted, she sets to childish work. She makes herself a shaky ladder of the detritus that lives here. She stacks a box on a chest on a chair and then hauls herself up with chubby hands, certain she’s found the way.
Childish plans are mother’s fears and as if she knows that harm is near, the woman’s footsteps are audible. They quicken, then they run. “Elsa!” she cries, as the girl’s foot slips, as the tower topples and she’s falling. Uselessly the woman’s arms stretch, she is not nearly close enough, but then in a heartbeat she’s across the room, faster than nature and not her own impetus.
Improbably, she holds the upright girl by her legs, from below. She lifts her upwards, propelled by something unseen. The girl rises up like an angel.
Then the spell is broken and the girl’s lowered down, scolded, enfolded and held so tight.
As her mother carries her away, the girl looks back, lingering. I see her lips mouth words. I think they are, “Thank you, lady.”
It is Thursday and I have not been expecting any company. But laughter and tiptoes are nearing and I am curious to see my visitors. They talk in hushed tones but jump as the door creaks. Laughter again, a little nervous perhaps, I hear a girl or a woman and a man or a boy.
“It’s so dusty!” says the girl, and “What did you expect?” the boy. They skirt the walls together, almost touching arm to arm.
I know that face, it is her again, but this time she is not looking for me.
“Servants’ rooms once, do you think?” the boy says. “This house is big enough to have had them.”
“Yes, yes I think so. But I’d forgotten they were so small…I haven’t been up in here in years…”
“Whyever not? It’s the perfect hideaway.”
“Oh really,” says the girl, and her voice is heavy now, older and rougher. “Tell me why I’d need a hideaway…”
“I think I’d rather show you.”
And then they are hands sliding down limbs, breath and whispers and sound and heat and I it’s like I’m held captive in their intensity and I can’t bear it, can’t bear it.
They are so tender, but so wanting. I didn’t know it could be like this. I could swear I feel a hot tear running down my living cheek as I see the joy on her face and on his and I learn at last what I should have known then.
Perhaps I am jealous or sad or angry or shy but suddenly as their gasps swell I am there where she is and I feel what she feels and I glow and I’m warm and her body shudders.
Afterwards, I watch them from back across the room again. They are curled where I left them and the girl is shivering still. He covers her and holds her, and I almost cannot watch. “Are you ok, Elsa? You’re shaking really badly.”
“Yes,” she murmurs, “yes, yes, yes, I’m just…I’m cold.”
It is Friday, and Elsa is painting the wall when the doorbell rings.
The man who bounds into the attic lets out a whistle of admiration. “Classy loft apartment inhabited by gorgeous girl about town,” he grins, catching her by the waist.
They kiss, long and deep, and then she pulls back and dots his nose with paint. They laugh and she hands him a roller; he loses jacket and tie, rolls up his sleeves.
“Seriously,” he says, “it looks amazing, you were right.”
“The house is too big for anyone, nowadays. It should have been converted years ago, but mum and dad loved it, so…”
“Flat 7, Iremonger House,” he proclaims. “Now that’s an address with a ring to it. But the stairs! Elsa, my darling, my love, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“I told you, Toby, there’s a friendly ghost here. I needed the top floor flat.” She smiles at him, then turns back to work, and his smile turns to a frown as he stares at her back.
They continue in silence until he cannot keep the question inside him any longer. “Elsa…you didn’t actually choose the flat because…because you believe it’s haunted, did you? I know that’s a stupid question, you just sounded like….”
She stops, and I can tell – perhaps Toby can, too – from the set of her shoulders that she is serious. Elsa turns to face him, and her face – it is her face now – transfixes me.
“Yes, Toby, I did. I really, truly, honestly believe that there is…something, up here, in the attic of Iremonger House. Something good. Something supernatural. It saved my life when I was a little girl. I saw her the first time I came to the house. I know it doesn’t sound rational, but yes, I believe it, I do.”
Toby is silent, and Elsa faces him defiantly. Eventually he shrugs with a rueful smile and turns to continue painting. Elsa relaxes, finally, and moves towards the kettle in the new kitchen.
Soon after they are sitting and laughing again, warming their hands on mugs and sketching out plans for the attic.
“Perhaps the ghost is your ancestor,” says Toby, when the conversation lulls. “The house has belonged to your family forever, right?”
“Right,” she agrees. “Mum’s side. Her granddad’s granddad built the house and it’s been ours ever since. We were the “family at the big house,” once – funny, isn’t it, to think of? There are no actual Iremongers left, that’s something I do know. The name died out a generation ago.”
“Iremonger.” Toby rolls the familiar word in his mouth. “It’s a good, solid, powerful word. Maybe we should adopt the name, bring it back, what do you think?”
Elsa smiles, “It sounds steeped in anger, I always think. Ire-monger, dealer in ire. I’m not sure that’s the name for me.”
They continue to bat words back and forth, and I watch them and I think I’m envious. But something else is making me thoughtful.
A friendly ghost, a something good. Is that who I am to her?
It is Saturday, and Toby fights his way across the attic’s threshold. Leaning against the door’s inside are boxes, chairs and a heavy chest.
He stumbles through, looks at the fallen blockade and sighs. His face is angry but his eyes are sad, and his voice is level as he calls out, “Elsa!”
She appears in the bedroom door and stops still as she takes in the mess and Toby. Now, she looks frightened.
“Toby,” she begins, but he interrupts gently.
“I’ll pack my things and go, Elsa. I wish you could just talk to me instead of, this –”
“Toby, I swear –”
“You swear what? That it’s a ghost? A phantom is barricading the door to our, your home? Elsa…this is crazy. You know, god I hope you know, you could never have anything to fear from me. I don’t know why you’re doing this, but I know that if I need to force my way in then I shouldn’t be trying to get through the door. I’m packing a bag, and I’m going.”
Elsa watches him leave in silence then walks slowly to the bedroom, throws herself down. “Am I mad?” she whispers to no one but me, and starts to weep.
It is Sunday and I am a living fourteen. We have come from the Church in bonnets and boots, trooping like truculent schoolchildren back to Iremonger House. My head is slow and sticky as treacle, and so must be my feet – I feel Elsie’s nudge at my side and her whisper to “hurry up, she’s looking at you”.
I look up blearily to find her there. It is Mrs McCabe, the housekeeper. “Run along, Elsie,” she says, but her eyes are on me and I know what she sees. Purple smudges beneath my eyes, reddened lids and dull doughy skin. Shoulders slumped and dragging feet; I am so wretchedly tired.
“You’re looking peaky,” she says. “What a sight to be seen in St John’s – what’s wrong with you, my girl? Now stand up straight and fix your collar. Try to look like a good girl from Iremonger House should.”
I try, I pull my shoulders back, I look Mrs McCabe in the face and wish myself smart, neat, pleasing and bright. She sighs. “Get you to bed, then. Clearly you’re taken ill. Tomorrow I shall talk to the Mistress about calling in the doctor.”
She sweeps away in her long black dress, not knowing she brings my doom to me.
The doctor will come and the doctor will know and what comes next is too big and too terrible for a small mind like mine to grasp. I will be sent packing, everyone will know, and they’ll talk of me – all of them – as just another bad girl, a wanton. And the thing – the thing inside me, it will grow, insistent, unstoppable. When I close my eyes I can almost feel it clawing, wanting to be known. My hands go to skate across my belly and then they’re claws, too – my fingers pinch, trying to grip the creature, squeeze it away, make it gone.
I’m sweating, panicked, heart swooping, and yet still my body’s weary. I cannot think, I am trapped like a fly in the treacle of my mind and the treachery of my belly. I slowly climb the stairs to the small attic room that I share with Elsie. I stand at the top and I try again to summon the courage to jump, to fall. If I were just a little braver I could kill it or me or both of us here, escape the fate that is given me. But I cannot, I am a coward.
Still, cowards can find a way.
In the attic, all I can hear are the distant bells of St John’s. With the small strength I have I pull my trunk and Elsie’s against the doorway.
I sit quietly on my bed and tear the sheet into strips.
Tie the knots, test just one. It tightens when I pull at the loop. Vomit leaps into my mouth and I force it down in painful swallows. Acid, tears, and then, unbidden memory, his hands on the back of my head. He pushes, insistent, my eyes stream and throat gags, and I hear him, strangled sounds and breath.
Throw my rope over the beam and catch it. Knots again, pull them tight.
Kneel by the bed, say a last prayer, I forget all the words I know and all I can find is, “Mother, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Feel under my bed for the small jug that I secreted away on laundry day. Scrunch my nose and stow it in the pocket of my dress. A coward always needs a choice to run away towards.
Stand on the bed, catch the loop, bow my head like a mockery of worship. “I am sorry for my sin,” I whisper.
It is Sunday and Elsa still weeps. She sinks to the floor from the bed, covers her eyes with her hands, but then opens them again, surprised. There is something…a smell. It is familiar, but from a long time ago. Her eyes widen in realisation and she starts to drag herself in a half-crawl across the floor.
It is done, I think, it is done, and there is nothing left for me to face or choose. Seconds feel like minutes as I wait for the peace of darkness.
But there’s a sound. Crashes, thumps, and I start to flail and turn in the air as my peace is shattered. It’s Elsie, she’s through my poor barricade, she cries out and stumbles towards me. Grabs my legs.
She lifts, I rise like an angel.
Then she’s walking me back towards the bed, she’s sweating and red with my weight, but determined. She looks up, her face is tearstained.
My arms are free. I reach down into my pocket, and grasp the jug. Nothing seems difficult now.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, to Elsie or anyone, before I throw what’s in the jug down my throat.
Elsa is in the kitchen, on the floor, under the basin. Her face is still wet and ugly with sorrow as she scrabbles her fingers down the cupboard door until she finds and grasps the handle.
Pipes, plumbing, cloths and sponges. Her fingers range with purpose until she closes on a bottle – it’s bright with gaudy colour and embellished with warning symbols.
She unscrews the top, breathes in and smiles an unhappy stretched smile of recognition.
I watch her and I know now, what I have done, or almost done. Just one moment and the circle closes, the last of his kin will die just like the girl he hurt. All I must do is wait and perhaps I will have my peace.
I am not conscious of moving but I now I am down there next to her, and for the second time in our lives but the first time of my choosing, I am there for her to see.
The girl looks up.
It is Sunday, and the attic smells of lye.
Sarah is a writer of short stories and flash fiction, which often turn out as accidental fairytales. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find more of Sarah’s work in The Sandspout magazine.