Drunk with exhaustion, I sat down at the kitchen table to drink my coffee and look over the mail. Anyone who does not believe that the full moon does not affect the emergency room has never worked in one. I picked the top letter off the pile, recognizing my ex’s loopy handwriting. Odd. It wasn’t either of the kids’ birthdays, and we did not part on greeting card terms. I sliced the envelope open and pulled out the card.
“Sorry for the way I treated you. I should have recognized a good thing when I had it. I’ll send extra child support next month.”
I blinked. I’d believe it when I saw it, but it certainly would help the budget. The next letter informed me that I had won a long weekend stay in a luxury hotel in the mountains. I vaguely remembered entering a drawing a while ago. Might be legit. Someone had to win those things, right? Why couldn’t it be me for once? I pictured myself sitting back in one of those Adirondack chairs, a book in my lap and a tall drink at my side, gazing out over that misty blue mountain scenery.
I gasped and leapt back as a cascade of hot coffee suddenly poured into my lap. I realized I had fallen asleep face down in the pile of mail, coffee mug still in my hand. Mopping up the mess, I laughed as I realized the mail was the usual junk mail and bills. The fantasy had been nice while it lasted.
To Crash and Burn
As my world burned, I froze in place, looking at the letter I held in trembling hands, unable to make sense of it. Certain words...'love her', 'no fault', 'friends'... jumped off the page while others receded into a blur. The page slipped from my numb fingers and slowly floated to the ground.
A Dish Best Eaten Cold
Meggie finally decided she had to act. She couldn’t think of anything else to make the dreams stop. She knew she wasn’t the only victim. It wasn’t wrong because girls like them didn’t get justice. She packed the revolver in her bag and caught the bus to the village one afternoon. An elderly lady sat down next to her. Meggie shifted over without looking at her and jumped when she heard her name.
The fearsome housekeeper was now a stooped little lady with grey hair.
“Miss McCrimmon! How are you?”
“Och, I’m as well as can be expected at my age. I retired a while ago. No need for me after what happened at the castle.”
“What happened?” said Meggie.
“I suppose you didn’t get much news. Young Alexander was killed over there in France. Her ladyship never got over it.” Miss McCrimmon looked around and whispered with relish. “She took to the drink. They’d closed most of the house by then; I wasn’t there. They say she knocked over an oil lamp when she was in her bed. The place went up like dry straw. No chance to save her, poor thing.”
Meggie noticed that Miss McCrimmon didn’t seem particularly upset by the story.
“Are you here to visit someone?”
“I am,” said Meggie. “Someone I needed to see for old times’ sake.”
They got off the bus together in the village. Meggie waited till Miss McCrimmon was out of sight before heading down the road to the estate gates. Even if she could not confront him, she would face the memory of him. The once immaculate driveway was full of potholes and the shrubbery was untrimmed. It was dark by the time she reached the castle, though the moonlight was almost as bright as day. The pale gray walls loomed up, punctuated by dark, empty window sockets. Ignoring the sign which forbade entrance, Meggie marched defiantly up to the front door, something she was never allowed to do when she worked there. The door was boarded shut but she easily clambered through one of the windows into the once magnificent front hall. The night sky was visible through the tangle of charred beams which had fallen from the upper floors. Her attic room had been somewhere up there. The black and white tile floor glittered with fragments of broken glass which crunched under her feet. Shining a little pocket torch, she carefully picked her way through to the morning room where it had all begun.
The cold, pale moonlight shone in through the skeletal stone arches of the window. She could see her crazed and cracked reflection in the remains of the mirror above the elaborately carved marble fireplace, as if it were reflecting her mind and not her face. She had been a skinny fourteen-year-old in a too-big uniform dress, groggy from rising before dawn. On her knees sweeping the ashes from that very fireplace into a pan, someone had suddenly grabbed her from behind. She had yelped and struggled upright to find herself clutched nose to chest with a young, fair-haired man in rumpled evening clothes. Stale alcohol fumes wafted into her face as he nuzzled her neck. She dropped the dustpan and a cloud of ash billowed up between them. He pushed her away, coughing and cursing, and marched out. She had been told in no uncertain terms to turn her face to the wall and never speak if she encountered any of the family, but no one had prepared her for this. Miss McCrimmon, the housekeeper was not impressed.
“Oh aye, that’s Alexander for you. He’s the oldest son. Bit of a rascal. Were you flirting instead of doing your work? Stay out of his way. You don’t want to lose your position. Now hurry up and finish that room before the rest of them get up.”
Meggie had held her tongue and blinked back her tears. The injustice of it stung, but she did indeed need her position. Competition was fierce amongst the local girls to get a place at the big house. There weren’t many other options.
She returned abruptly to the present, startled by an owl hooting nearby. She cautiously ventured out of the morning room to the great hall. The moonlight pooled on the floor through the cavity of the empty bay window. She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall, conjuring up the memories of that grand ball one summer evening in 1914. She and the other servants had scrubbed, polished and dusted for days beforehand. The housekeeper allowed them to briefly peek at the guests from the upstairs landing after the festivities started. They had gasped at the kaleidoscope of elegant dresses, sparkling jewels, hothouse flowers, and music swirling below, momentarily distracted from their aching feet and chapped hands. Sent to gather up plates and glasses after the last guests had gone, she realized she was alone in the huge hall. Setting down her tray, she whirled around the room with an imaginary partner, humming to herself. Suddenly she collided with someone, stammering an apology as she recognized Alexander.
“Well, well, what have we here?” he said, grabbing her arm and clamping a hand over her mouth. “Let’s have a little fun.” His words were slurred. He dragged her into the alcove of the bay window behind the thick, velvet curtains. Meggie shuddered at the memory. To this day, she could not stand the feel of velvet. The weight of his body, the buttons of his dress uniform digging into her, his arm across her neck so she could hardly breathe, the pain, came back to her now as vividly as the moment it happened. It took minutes, but lasted forever. Afterwards, he pushed himself up off her, arranged his clothes, smoothed down his hair, and pulled her upright.
“There’s a good girl. Don’t want any scenes, now, do we?” He tossed a couple of coins at her and left. Meggie lay stunned for a few moments, then scrambled to pick herself up and straighten her dress as she heard voices. She headed unsteadily for the kitchen, the glasses rattling on the tray. The kitchen staff were still in such a frenzy of activity that no one paid attention to her. In her attic room, she wrestled with the first of many long nights of grotesque dreams where she killed him as he loomed over her, stabbing him, poisoning his drinks, shooting him, waking in a cold sweat as he collapsed dead on top of her. Creeping down to breakfast next morning, she braced herself for questions. But the staff were absorbed in newspaper headlines blaring the outbreak of war. Her distraction was considered reasonable amidst the fears of the wicked Kaiser and his army overrunning the country.
The world changed in the next few months. Alexander left to join his regiment at the front. The staff dwindled as most of the men joined up and the women went for war work. Meggie signed up for nursing as soon as she could. During the war, she thrived, but with peace the dreams returned as if they had been waiting for the opportunity to haunt her, till she found herself here in the moonlight thinking of doing the unspeakable.
She slowly made her way back outside. She had survived this ordeal and the war. A few dreams could be handled. Unspeakably weary, she sank down on the front steps. Her shoulder ached from the weight of her handbag. The revolver. The one she was going to use to kill him. She looked at the dark ugly shape of it. No need for it now. For once, fate had administered justice. She headed for the disused well at the back of the house and dropped the revolver into its dark, moss-walled depths with a sigh of relief. The faint splash below seemed to release her from the spell. Without a backward glance, she set off down the driveway for the last time.
When Darkness Comes
When darkness comes, be still and wait until your vision has adapted. Do not panic. Darkness is both friend and foe. Darkness helps the hunter and the hunted. We may plunge into it or it may steal over us. Fear and loneliness may haunt us in the dark, looming out of all proportion. Dreams and plans may form and shape in darkness, evaporating in the light or germinating into brilliance. Don't be afraid.
Spirits are everywhere. Picture us billowing around you like steam in the bathroom when you’ve had a hot shower. We’re almost always invisible. Our bodies are gone but our essence remains, quietly attached to the places where we suffered, lived, loved and died. Most emotions only matter to the person experiencing them and the same applies to spirits. We just want to mind our own business. If we like you, we become protective and may try to reach you with warnings or advice. Ignore the Hollywood stereotypes which give us all a bad name. Most of us hate melodrama.
There are exceptions. Catherine Howard’s ghost is reputed to run along the corridors of Hampton Palace begging Henry for mercy, understandable since he’d ordered her beheading. I was over eighty when I passed on, so my spirit’s not up to running anywhere. Then there are the headless horsemen. As spirits, we don’t have bodies as such, but in my opinion, it would be very inconvenient to have to carry your head around under your arm. I would not dream of wailing in a storm when a death is about to occur, and I do not go about making noises in the night. Most unladylike.
I was born in 1890. My husband was killed in the first World War. I quietly haunt this house where I loved and lost and suffered. I’ve seen families come and go over the years since and shaken my head over some of their home decorating tastes, but I have never bothered anyone, and no one has bothered me.
Homes, especially old ones, are often occupied by multiple spirits from different times. Spirits are generally solitary, but we do encounter each other now and then. The house I haunt was built in the 1700s, so there are a few of us. There’s a little servant boy from that era who loves playing practical jokes. It’s very irritating, but he had a hard life and died young, so I make allowances. Let him have a little fun. There’s also a young lady who died of typhoid not long after her wedding in 1800. Sometimes we commiserate with each other. Sometimes we tell jokes though they're not always very funny a hundred years later .
Why haven’t you seen us if we’re all around? Has your dog ever growled at nothing? Has your cat leapt out of a chair for no apparent reason? Does your child talk to imaginary friends? Have you felt a prickling at the back of your neck, seen a glimpse of movement from the corner of your eye, had a premonition or a strange dream? Trust your intuition. One of us could be nearby.
I'm confined. I'm bored. I'm frustrated. I'm scared. This lockdown seems to have lasted for a lifetime already. I know! I could go shopping online. I skim Amazon. Clothes maybe. But what's the point of getting all dressed up with nowhere to go? Makeup ditto. Sporting gear? Nah. Wasn't an athlete before all this; having fancy jogging pants won't turn me into one. Reading? Fine, but my eyeballs are sore from reading already. Tools? No, that's my husband's territory. Daren't encroach. Then I have a vision of some poor worker toiling in that Amazon warehouse, risking his health for me to accumulate more crap I don't need and to make Jeff Bezos richer. I'm ashamed. Never mind. I'll put my mask on and walk the dog instead.
No More Help
My family has been getting on my last nerve, but at last we can return to civilisation, big city conveniences, nightlife, restaurants, all the amenities that make life bearable. We made it here to our country retreat just before everything shut down. I can't imagine being confined with them in the penthouse. It hasn't been easy here either, but at least the kids could run outside in the garden and swim in the pool without fear of contamination. I called ahead and arranged for the kitchen to be stocked with ready-to-eat meals. The wine supply has been adequate. My wife could use her gym. We kept the workload light for the housekeeper. The kids had fun learning how to use the washing machine and dishwasher. Such a novelty for them!
I phone our housekeeper to let her know she can come back to work. The number rings and rings. I try the gardener. A mechanical tone tells me I have reached a number that has been disconnected. I grit my teeth. This will delay our departure. I'll have to go down to the village myself. The internet's so unreliable here I could not get on line this morning. I back out of the garage and head down the driveway. The wrought iron gates swing open slowly. The curving road to the village is deserted. There's never much traffic, but this is odd. I thought people would have been celebrating the end of the lockdown.
There are some vehicles parked outside the church, even though it's a weekday. The bell tolls solemnly. I pull over and get out of the car. People are beginning to emerge in single file, several feet apart. Some are sobbing. A short, stout man is standing at the churchyard gate, clipboard in hand, writing. One of the lockdown wardens, who can report people for breaking social distance rules. He notices me and beckons me to come closer, raising his hand to stop me when I am within earshot. Attention swivels to me.
"State your purpose here, sir," the tubby one says officiously. He obviously doesn't recognize me, but the others do. The weeping stops. A low muttering begins.
"I have been trying to reach our housekeeper, Mrs. Smith by phone, good man. Now that the curfew has been lifted, I have to get back to town for some important business. Do you know where I can find her?"
The last figure in the line comes towards me, flinging back the black veil from her face.
The warden tries to stop her, but she pushes him aside despite his size and hurries towards me. I try to back away, but she corners me against my car.
"You!" she hisses. "You knew about the disease before you came. You brought it from the city. You knew the risk. I cleaned up after you and your brats. I caught a cold, just a cold, I thought. You told me not to worry, to go home and rest. So I did, and now my husband's dead!"
She reared back and spit in my face, then turned to resume her place in line. I stood in shock as the procession moved away. I do indeed know the risks. There is no more help.
I know I saw you. Just a glimpse, a tall figure head and shoulders above the crowd. I push and weave upstream, ignoring the exclamations as I step on feet, bumping into people left and right as I cannot spare a second to take my eyes off you. It never occurs to me to wonder why you and I are going in the opposite direction from everyone else. You’re too far away to hear me and the press of people is too tight for me to draw breath to call your name. So, I press on. It cannot end this way. I shouldn’t have said what I did. I must explain. The sky is getting darker and I panic as I almost lose sight of you. It’s hot and smoky and I begin to cough. There’s a garbled message coming from bullhorns somewhere, something about evacuating without delay. Between wheezing breaths, I remember. Wildfire danger. We were so intent on screaming at each other this morning that we didn’t turn on the TV or the radio, and then you stormed out. Suddenly a police officer grabs my shoulders, turns me around and pushes me in the same direction as the crowd.
“Lady, no one’s going any further that way. Move it, now!”
I frantically try to tell him that I saw you, that you must be in danger.
He shakes his head.
“Nobody’s being allowed to go that way. Too late if he did go.”
I squirm away from his grasp, but the momentum of the crowd sucks me forward. And when I looked again, you were gone.