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A Houseful of Ghosts

by Matthew Batham 11 days ago in fiction

When the past has never really left

A Houseful of Ghosts
Photo by Karl on Unsplash

1982

Sam tucked his stash under the loose floorboard in the airing cupboard and backed out into his bedroom. He needed to brush his teeth and wash his hands to get rid of the smell of smoke, but his sister, Julie, was having one of her ‘long soaks’ which meant the bathroom would be off-limits for at least an hour, depending on when she had submerged herself. Meanwhile, he needed to change his jumper, because the one he was wearing stank of weed. He wasn’t sure if his parents even knew what weed smelt like, but he wasn’t going to risk it. At least they were out, probably doing the weekly shop at the new Sainsbury’s, so he hadn’t had to face them when he got home. By the time they saw him he’d be less out of it and, he hoped, smelling of the awful coal tar soap his mother had started buying. Apparently, it reminded her of being a little girl.

He scanned the neatly folded clothes on the shelves that surrounded the hot water tank in the cupboard. He’d never really understood why his mother insisted on airing clothes before putting them in the relevant wardrobes. Probably something else that reminded her of being a little girl. He spotted a grey jumper, not that different to the one he was wearing and pulled it from the shelf. Out of habit he held it to his cheek, feeling the warmth, deciding he did see the point of the airing cupboard after all.

He glanced down at the bare floorboards that formed the airing cupboard floor - a final check that his stash was well-hidden and that the board had fallen properly back into place – and saw what looked like paw prints in the dust that coated them. He frowned and crouched down to examine them more closely. There were about ten of them, covering about two feet of floor. Could a fox or something have got in – there were a few urban foxes in the area. Mrs Jacobs from three doors down claimed one had broken into her house and bitten her on the foot while she was napping, but nobody took any notice of anything Mrs Jacobs said – she was about a hundred and talked to people that weren’t there.

The more Sam scrutinised the marks the more he realised they didn’t look like paw prints after all, more like small handprints. He frowned, rubbed at one of the impressions with a finger until its shape was lost, then headed downstairs to the kitchen in search of food. He was suddenly ravenous.

When he returned to his room half an hour later, he took another look inside the airing cupboard. The prints had gone and the floor was dust-free.

When Sam’s parents returned from Sainsbury’s laden with carrier bags, bickering as always, but not about anything serious, Sam noticed how pale his mum looked.

“Why don’t you sit down,” his father said, pushing her toward a chair in the dining room, which adjoined the kitchen. “I can put the shopping away.”

Sam couldn’t remember the last time his father had offered to do this chore alone.

“I’m fine,” his mother insisted, trying to push past her husband into the kitchen.

“If you’re fine why did you nearly pass out in the car park? And why are you carrying those bags when I said I’d bring the shopping in?”

Finally, Sam’s mother relented, slumping onto a chair at the round dining table and dropping the bags on either side of her. “Fine,” she sighed, wiping a hand across her now flushed face. “Sam, could you make me a cup of tea?”

“What’s the matter with you?” asked Sam, realising the question sounded like an accusation rather than concern, which is what he was actually feeling.

“Nothing, I just got a bit hot and bothered,” said his mother. “Your dad was having one of his rants and it made my head spin.”

“I thought it would be my fault,” said his dad, retrieving the two bags from either side of the chair and taking them through to the kitchen.

“I’m only joking, Clive. I just overdid it a bit. I’ll be fine once Sam makes me that tea.”

Sam stood with a huff, but headed to the kitchen to do as he was told. His mother really did look unwell.

“Maybe you should take the doctor’s advice and lose a bit of weight,” said Sam’s father, who was standing in the middle of the kitchen with a can of sweet corn in one hand and a bag of flour in the other, glancing round at the various cupboards as if he’d never seen them before. Sam took the sweet corn from him and put it in the cupboard with all the other canned food and pointed to the cupboard above the cooker where his mother kept all the other baking stuff.

“Charming,” his mother called from the next room. “And when was the last time you won a beauty contest?”

“I like you bigger, I’m just saying what the doctor said.”

Sam grimaced. His mother was sensitive about the extra pounds she’d piled on in the past two years. He waited for her to come back with an insult of her own, but she remained silent which meant she was really upset.

Claire Barrett had gone to bed early, about 9.15, without bothering to prepare Sam’s lunch box for the morning and definitely without saying goodnight to her husband. If he thought she was fat he could spend the evening watching Charlie’s Angels, or whatever American trash was on TV, and ogle at unrealistically slim women. Now she was awake at 11.30 and in the disorientated state that came from falling into a deep sleep and then regaining consciousness in a real but subdued world that had moved on but only a fraction. Clive was in bed too now, snoring gently – but irritatingly – into his pillow. She could vaguely hear the TV on downstairs, so assumed Julie was still up when she should have been getting her eight hours ready for work at the Co-op. She hoped Sam wasn’t taking advantage of her early bedtime and sitting up too. He was only fifteen, but Claire already felt she was losing control of him.

She felt Clive’s hand on her thigh, realised his snoring had stopped. Typical. Call her fat one minute then expect sex the next. It was the first time he’d shown any interest in her for about two months, but she still pushed the hand away, scowled at his disgruntled tut and sat up. She felt guilty now for not making Sam’s lunch. She could get up early and do it in the morning, but while she was awake, she might as well do it now. Clive pulled at her arm as she slipped out of bed, but she pulled herself free without looking at him, and walked drowsily to the bedroom door. Behind her Clive moaned, as if she’d stayed to pleasure him rather than rejecting his pathetic advance. She shook her head as she pulled on her dressing gown and headed downstairs. Maybe she should have given in. Twice in a year wasn’t much to ask for, but she was still fuming from his earlier insult.

Walking past the living room on her way to the kitchen she heard Julie and Sam talking in whispers and giggling. She wasn’t in the mood for a confrontation. He’d suffer in the morning when he had to get up for school after only a few hours sleep. She pushed open the kitchen door, wondering if she should risk a cup of tea before going back to bed. Clive was standing at the work surface buttering a slice of toast.

“Alright?” he asked as she stood staring at him.

“You must have been dreaming,” said Clive. “You looked half asleep when you came into the kitchen.”

“Just check the wardrobe again,” said Claire, watching from the bedroom doorway as her husband stood up from having looked under the bed.

“There’s no-one in the bloody wardrobe,” he insisted, flinging the door open to reveal nothing but her clothes. “You were just dreaming, Woman!”

“What’s wrong?” asked Julie, who was standing with Sam on the landing, her bleached blonde hair tied in a makeshift bun, ready for bed.

“Nothing,” said Claire, trying to sound calm. “I just had a bad dream, apparently.

Julie raised her plucked eyebrows. “Bit old for that, aren’t you?”

“Go to bed,” snapped Claire. “I’m not bringing you tea in the morning when you’re too tired to get up.”

“I might not bother going in,” said her daughter, heading for the bathroom and slamming the door behind her.

“What did you dream about?” asked Sam.

“Nothing,” said his mother, feeling bad now for making such a fuss. “It was just a stupid dream,” she glanced at her husband. “I dreamt I was sixteen stone and that your dad was leaving me for Farah Fawcett-Majors.”

Sam laughed. Claire noticed his once perfect teeth were stained yellow. She knew she’d have to have another talk with him about smoking soon. He claimed to have stopped but he obviously hadn’t. “Go to bed now,” she said. “You’ve got your mocks in two weeks, you need to get some sleep.”

“I’m leaving school at sixteen anyway,” said Sam. “Gunna work with Matt at his dad’s restaurant.”

“Good for you,” said Claire, returning her attention to the empty bed, wondering if it was just her imagination or if there really was an indentation on Clive’s side.

Sam woke to the sound of a baby crying. He screwed his eyes shut to dispel what he assumed was the remnants of a dream, although he had no memory of dreaming about a baby. The crying continued – short desperate wails. Sam opened his eyes to the dark outlines of his room. Still half asleep, the enormity of what he was hearing hadn’t fully registered yet. There was a baby crying somewhere in his room. He sat up, switching on the bedside lamp, squinting again the sudden glare. He tried to focus on the sound through the post-sleep haze. It was coming from the airing cupboard. He remembered the strange prints from the day before. Animal prints, or tiny handprints? He shook his head vigorously, as if the crying was a sound he could dislodge, but it continued, now trailing into a desolate whimpering. He swung his legs over the side of the bed. His feet felt suddenly chilled. The whole room, he realised, was freezing. He touched the radiator next to the bed. It was pumping out heat. This was too much. He thought about calling for his dad, but that seemed too childish – something he hadn’t done since he was about six and still suffering from nightmares. He stared at the door to the airing cupboard. As he lifted himself from the bed, the door flew open, slamming against the wall. Sam screamed and fell backwards. Icy air blew from the open cupboard, and the phantom screams intensified, filling the room and his head.

“Sam?”

His father stood in the bedroom doorway, dressed in blue y-fronts and looking bleary-eyed.

The crying had stopped. The airing cupboard door had closed.

“What’s wrong?” his father asked, stepping tentatively into the room.

Sam stared from the airing cupboard door to his father. His heartbeat seemed to fill the entire bed, like a generator.

“Nothing,” he finally replied, pulling the bedclothes around himself. “I just had a bad dream.”

His father raised his eyebrows, looking unconvinced, or surprised, Sam couldn’t tell which. “Can I get you anything?” he asked.

Sam shook his head. “No, I’m fine.”

His father glanced around the room, as if the secret of his son’s sudden hysteria was hiding somewhere. Maybe it was.

“Okay,” he said. “Well, try and get some sleep.”

Easier said than done. Sam dozed with the lamp on until daylight cleansed the room and his mood.

When Sam left the house for school the next morning the ancient Mrs Jacobs was standing at the end of the short driveway staring at his sister’s bedroom window, which was downstairs at the front of the house.

“Hello, Mrs Jacobs,” he said.

She shifted her gaze from the window and fixed it on him – as much as she could fix her distant, milky eyes on anyone.

“Hello, who are you?” she asked.

“It’s me, Sam, you know me,” he replied, awkwardly.

“Oh yes, of course I do,” the old woman looked suddenly more lucid. “Sorry, I was miles away, well years away actually.”

Sam wasn’t sure how to respond to this, so he stared at the ground and hoped Mrs Jacob’s would shuffle on her way so he could get to school. But her clunky brown shoes remained where they were, and when Sam looked up she was staring at Julie’s bedroom window again.

“Are you okay?” Sam asked, partly to break the silence.

“Not really,” said Mrs Jacob’s, “I just saw someone I know in that room.”

“Who, Julie?” asked Sam.

“Who’s Julie?” asked Mrs Jacobs.

“My sister,” said Sam, “You know her too. We’ve lived here for fifteen years. You came over the day I was born, remember. I still have that funny flat teddy bear you brought me.”

Mrs Jacob’s nodded. “That’s nice,” she said, and with a final confused glance at the window, she walked with tiny, tottering steps towards her own house. Sam watched until she turned into her driveway, before continuing on his way.

“Julie!” Claire glared at her sleeping daughter. This was the third time in a couple of months she had skived off work. ”Julie!”

Finally, Julie stirred, lifting her face an inch from the pillow and squinting at her mother as if she’d never seen her before.

“What?” she groaned.

“You should have been in work half an hour ago.”

“Can you ring them for me and say I’m ill. Tell them it’s women’s problems. They never question that.”

“Ring them yourself,” snapped Claire, slamming the bedroom door and stomping to the kitchen.

“At least I have a job!” Julie shouted.

Claire began slamming things around in the kitchen to demonstrate her anger. Julie had also touched a raw nerve. Claire was aware she hadn’t worked since getting pregnant with Julie and that the household budget could do with her input, but all she was trained for was secretarial work and nowhere local needed a secretary. And there was no way she was going to commute into London. Bringing up the kids had been her job, but now they didn’t really need her – not enough to justify staying at home all day, anyway.

Claire reached for the jar of Nescafe next to the kettle, but it wasn’t there. She hated it when Clive or one of the kids moved things around. She like everything in its place. Something crunched under her foot. Claire looked down and saw a mess of spilt coffee granules and broken glass.

“For God’s sake,” she cursed. Who’d left this for her to clean up? Although now she thought about it, she’d already been in the kitchen this morning, after Clive and Sam had left the house and there definitely hadn’t been any mess on the floor then. Frowning she opened the cupboard under the sink where the dustpan and brush were kept.

Nestled amongst the other cleaning paraphernalia, the plastic brush was twisted completely out of shape and the pan looked as if it had melted.

“What the...?”

“Language!”

Claire screamed, jolting round, jarring her neck.

“Calm down,” said Julie, shuffling into the kitchen. “You wanted me to get up.”

“Maybe hot water leaked into the cupboard and melted them,” said Clive, his tone of voice betraying impatience, he hated her ringing him at work.

“How hot do you think the water gets?” demanded Claire, sitting in the small chair next to the telephone table in the hallway.

“I haven’t analysed it that carefully,” said her husband, and then in a muffled voice: “I’ll be right with you Gill.”

Gill was his PA. She was about twenty-two, slim, but with boobs the size of grapefruits. Claire didn’t like her.

“I’ll let you get back to Gill,” she said, regretting the shade of green that coloured her tone.

“For God’s sake, Claire, what do you want me to do about a broken dustpan and brush. Just buy a new one. You’ve got all day to sort it out.”

The second dig about her unemployed state in the space of an hour. Nice. Claire hung up without saying goodbye. Why did he even need a bloody PA? He only managed about three people. How difficult was it to manage three people who sold cleaning products door to door?

Still craving a coffee, and remembering that they had bought a fresh jar the night before, Claire headed back to the kitchen. She stopped with a startled yelp in the doorway. The kitchen had been ransacked. Cereal packets had been torn open and their contents strewn across the floor, the bin had been overturned, spewing old food and empty tins everywhere and both taps were on full, water overflowing from the sink to create a quagmire on the kitchen floor.

“Julie!” she screamed.

“What now?” Julie called. “I’m in the bath.”

The phone rang, making Claire yelp yet again. She stared at the impossible destruction for a few seconds and then went to answer it. Still shaken, it took her a moment to register what the voice on the other end of the phone was saying. But then, through the loud crackling on the line, she made out the words: “Get out of that house...get out now!

As she slammed the receiver down Julie began screaming.

“There was a man standing in the corner of the bathroom,” said Julie, between heaving breaths. She was huddled on her bed, wrapped in a large blue bath towel, her face pasty with shock.

Claire sat next to her, wanting to put a comforting arm around her shoulder, but reticent as it was such an alien thing to do these days.

“Where did he go?” she asked – there had been no man in the bathroom when she’d forced her way in just seconds after Julie had screamed.

“He was there!” insisted Julie. “Just for a few seconds, a man dressed in a brown dressing gown. I was lying in the bath with my eyes closed and when I opened them he was there, staring at me.”

“And then he just disappeared?” asked Claire.

“Yes! I’m not making this up.”

“I believe you,” said Claire. “Have you seen the state of the kitchen?”

“What?” Julie looked genuinely confused.

“Never mind,” said Claire, patting her daughter’s back – even that felt strange. “Get yourself dressed. I think we should go out for a bit.”

Sam listened as his mother and sister recounted their experiences. They were sitting around the dining table as if in a business conference. His sister looked about twelve, dressed in jeans and a baggy jumper, face free of make-up for the first time in years.

“So what are you both suggesting,” asked his father, still dressed in his work suit. “That the house is suddenly haunted?”

“What do you think is happening?” asked his mother. “I’d love to hear your theory, I’m sure Julie would too.”

Sam’s father sighed and leaned back in his chair, fingers pressed together as though in half-hearted prayer. “You had a bad dream, Julie was dozing in the bath and imagined she saw someone, a cat or a fox got into the kitchen and someone made a crank phone call,” he said.

“Really?” asked Julie, slapping her hands down on the table in exasperation.

“It’s a more credible explanation than a ghost.”

Sam cleared his throat and all three members of his family turned to look at him. If he mentioned the linen cupboard they might go and investigate and find his stash, but if he didn’t tell them about the handprints and the crying he’d be betraying his mother and Julie. Not that he owed Julie anything, but his mother didn’t deserve to be treated like a madwoman.

“Last night I heard a baby crying in my room,” he said, opting to share the part of the story that might not incriminate him.

“What?” his father asked, almost sneering.

“That’s why I called out,” said Sam.

“Screamed out you mean,” said his father.

“It happened,” said Sam, and I definitely wasn’t dreaming. “I turned the lamp on and sat up and I could still hear it.”

“How come we didn’t hear it then?” his father demanded.

Sam shrugged. “I’m just telling you what I heard.”

“Well I’ve heard enough,” said his father, standing and leaving the dining room with an air of superiority which mad Sam want to kick him. “Some of us have been working all day and need to sit down and watch TV for an hour.”

“Can I sleep in your room?” asked Julie.

“What?” Sam looked from the TV to his sister who was huddled on the opposite end of the sofa, hugging a cushion.

“I could drag my mattress upstairs and sleep on the floor,” she said.

“Are you serious?”

“I don’t want to sleep down here on my own.”

“In case that man reappears?” asked Sam. He’d meant it as a joke, but as he spoke he suddenly recalled Mrs Jacobs standing outside the house staring at Julie’s bedroom window. Hadn’t she said something about seeing someone standing in Julie’s room.

“Okay,” he said, although the idea of his sister sleeping in the same room with him freaked him out.

Who do you think he is?” Julie asked.

Sam shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe you were just dreaming.”

“And the crying baby?” asked Julie, irritably.

Sam gave an involuntary shudder. “Maybe one of the neighbours has a baby and the sound just carried,” he said, not believing it.

“Yeah, right, like who. Mr and Mrs Jarred are about sixty and I think they may have mentioned if they had a new baby.”

“Maybe they had one of their daughters staying – didn’t one of them have a baby recently?

“Maybe,” said Julie, obviously wanting it to be true.

“I’m going up now,” said Sam. “Want me to help you with your mattress?”

Julie nodded, tossing the cushion to one side and standing.

Sam followed her out of the living room and to her small bedroom across the hall.

“Oh fuck,” said Julie.

“What?” Sam pushed past her into the room.

Julie’s bedding lay in a tangled heap in the centre of the mattress, which had been ripped to shreds, springs exposed, white stuffing scattered everywhere. The phone rang, making them both jump. Julie gripped his arm so tightly it hurt.

They both turned and stared at the phone. Sam heard his parents muttering upstairs, obviously disturbed by the ringing.

“Answer it,” whispered Julie.

Sam took a deep breath and walked over to the phone table, reaching out a hand to pluck up the receiver, but hesitating.

“Go on!” hissed Julie as their parents appeared on the landing.

Sam snatched up the phone. “Hello?”

“Why are you still here?” asked the crackling female voice. “I told you to get out. Get out of the house!”

Sam dropped the phone and stepped away from it. The voice continued to crawl from the earpiece. “Get out of the house!”

“Who is it?” asked his father, now by his side.

Sam waved a hand at the receiver. “You talk to her,” he said.

His father snatched up the phone? “Who is this?” he demanded, then he frowned and replaced the receiver. “They’ve gone, whoever they were,” he said.

“Was it her again?” Sam’s mother asked, hovering at the foot of the stairs. “The woman that rang this morning?”

“I guess so,” said Sam. “She said to get out of the house. She asked why we were still here.” And then it hit him. “She said ‘why are you still here?”, he said, glancing at his mother. “Not ‘there’. Why would she say ‘here’ unless she was...”

“In the house,” said his mother.

The doorbell rang.

Mrs Jacobs stood on the doorstep looking uncharacteristically alert.

“You’re Clive she said, looking pleased with herself.

“Mrs Jacobs, it 11.30.”

“Is it?” said Mrs Jacobs, resting a blue/grey hand on the door frame and stepping into the hallway.

“What can we do for you?” asked Clive, grudgingly standing to one side to allow her in.

“He’s here isn’t he,” said Mrs Jacobs.

“Who?” asked Clive, watching Mrs Jacobs’ slow progress across the hallway to the living-room.

“What do you want?” demanded Julie.

“Cup of tea, two sugars please,” replied Mrs Jacobs, sitting with a loud groan in the armchair usually reserved for Clive.

Julie scowled and looked to her mother for guidance. Clive looked at Claire too, although why he expected her to say anything useful was beyond him. She’d been making no sense at all lately.

“Maybe we should all have a cup of tea,” said Claire, watching Mrs Jacobs intently, and joining her in the living room. “What did you want to say, Mrs Jacobs?” she asked.

Mrs Jacobs seemed to have momentarily forgotten about them. She was staring at the TV, which now showed a black screen with a bright dot in the centre. “Is it that late already?” she muttered.

“Mrs Jacobs,” prompted Claire.

“Mrs Jacobs, what is it you want?” asked Clive gruffly, standing over her now, looking down at her pink scalp, barely covered by her white, downy hair.

“To speak to him,” said Mrs Jacobs. “To tell him to leave you alone.”

“Who?” asked Clive and Claire together.

“John Stanton,” said Mrs Jacobs, without looking away from the TV.

“Who the Hell is...” began Clive.

“He lived here in the thirties,” said Mrs Jacobs. “Back when these houses were still new. It was mostly fields round here then. And it was still Middlesex, not Greater London.”

“Fascinating,” said Clive.

Sam joined them in the living room, sitting on the sofa next to his mother.

“Why would he be here?” Sam asked, trying to keep his voice gentle and reassuring, he noticed his father give him an irritated look as if he’d said something wrong.

“I’m not sure,” said Mrs Jacobs, looking over at Sam. “But I saw him this morning in your sister’s room.”

“When you say he lived here, you mean here in this house,” said Sam.

“Yes.”

“And you knew him then?”

“Of course I knew him. Neighbours used to speak to each other back then.”

“So, he’s dead,” said Sam.

“Yes, he died about 40 years ago. He killed himself.”

“For God’s sake,” said Clive, still looming over the fragile figure of Mrs Jacob’s “Can’t this wait until the morning?”

“No, let her talk,” said Claire. “I want to know what happened here.”

“He killed them,” said Mrs Jacobs. “His wife, daughter and the baby.”

“Great,” hissed Clive, finally relenting and sitting on the armchair opposite Mrs Jacobs. “And I suppose he’s come back to haunt us, is that it?”

“Yes, he’s back,” said Mrs Jacobs mournfully.

“Has he been back before?” asked Sam.

“As far as I know he’s never been back to this house,” said Mrs Jacobs.

“So why now?” demanded Sam’s father. “Why would he suddenly decide to haunt us after not bothering anyone for forty years?”

Mrs Jacobs shrugged her bony shoulders. “I don’t know that,” she said.

“Why did he kill his family?” asked Sam.

Mrs Jacobs scratched he thigh through her thick tweed skirt. Her gaze had grown distant again. “He started to change when he found out she was pregnant,” she said. “I thought maybe that could be what had brought him back.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Sam’s father. “Are you saying Claire’s pregnant and that that’s triggered this...” he paused reluctantly searching for the right word. “Disturbance?”

“I’ve been pregnant in this house before,” said Sam’s mother, “And nothing like this happened then.”

“Mum?” Sam stared at his mother. “Are you...?”

“Clive,” Claire spluttered. “I was going to tell you when I was sure, but I’m six weeks late and I’ve been getting sick like with Sam.”

Sam’s father sunk back into his chair, releasing a long, heavy sigh. “Jesus,” he said.

“That wouldn’t bring him back,” said Mrs Jacobs. “It wasn’t his wife having a baby that sent him mad. It was his daughter that got up the duff. He couldn’t stand the thought of being soiled. His words.”

“Oh God,” said Julie, who stood framed in the doorway clutching a mug of tea.

Suddenly the mug flew from her hand and Julie was flung backwards. Sam heard her scream and the sound of her colliding with something in the hallway.

“He’s here,” said Mrs Jacobs.

Claire wrapped her daughter in a blanket and led her into the living room. The poor kid was trembling, unable to speak, when she tried her words were gibberish.

“It’s okay, darling,” she soothed, lowering her onto the sofa and sitting next to her, arm firmly around her rigid shoulders. “We’re going somewhere safe. As soon as you feel up to it we’ll get out of here.”

Mrs Jacobs hadn’t left her chair, from where she was keenly observing mother and daughter. Clive stood in the living room doorway, Sam just behind him.

“Is he still here?” Claire asked – there had been no other sign of the ghost’s presence following the attack on Julie.

Mrs Jacobs looked confused. “I don’t think it was him,” she said, her voice cracking a little. “I thought it was, but I can sense someone else.”

“Who?”

“Miriam.”

“Who?”

“Miriam, his wife.”

“She’s here too now?” Claire heard the near hysteria in her own voice and tried to contain it. “Why would she attack Julie?”

“And since when were you a bloody psychic?” asked Clive, once again approaching Mrs Jacobs’ chair. His stance almost aggressive.

Mrs Jacobs’ rested her pale eyes on him. “I’ve always been a bit psychic actually,” she said.

“Jesus,” hissed Clive, slumping against the nearest wall.

“Why is Miriam attacking Julie,” asked Claire again.

“I don’t think she was,” said Mrs Jacobs. “I think she was trying to push her out of the house. I don’t think she meant to hurt her.”

“Well there’s a whacking great bruise on my daughter’s back that suggests otherwise,” said Clive.

“I don’t think she’s had much experience of this,” said Mrs Jacobs.

“Still in ghost training?” asked Clive with a scornful sneer.

“He is here – John,” continued Mrs Jacobs. “But I don’t think he’s the one causing the disturbance. I think Lisa, the daughter is here too, although her presence is very weak.”

“Well he was in my bed,” said Claire, “And in the bathroom when Julie was in the bath. She actually saw him?”

“In your bed was he?” said Mrs Jacob’s, her tone scolding. “Yes, he’s here. But he’s not as strong as Miriam’s presence. Has anything else strange happened?”

“Yes,” said Claire, “Stuff thrown around the kitchen, a melted dustpan and brush, weird phone calls...”

“I think they were down to Miriam,” said Mrs Jacobs. “She’s trying to warn you., and having a bit of a revolution of her own. John was a stickler for housework. He used to inspect this place like a sergeant major every evening when he got home from work, according to Miriam, and if he wasn’t happy with her work he sometimes got violent. I think the thing with the dustpan and brush is her way of saying ‘no more’, although she’s a few decades too late.”

The coffee table in the middle of the room suddenly shifted several inches across the carpet. Julie screamed and clung to her mother. Clive just stared at the errant piece of furniture as if it had farted in company.

Mrs Jacobs looked nervous as she heaved herself from the armchair. “I need to go,” she said and I think you should leave too. Take your children and go and stay somewhere. I can try and talk to them while you are gone. I could ask my friend Cynthia to come over tomorrow. She’s dealt with this sort of thing before.”

“Is she small and round with large glasses?” asked Clive, still staring at the coffee table. “Does she talk in a high-pitched voice and say ‘go into the light!’”

Mrs Jacobs frowned.

“She’s a character in a new film,” explained Sam, forcing his own gaze from the mobile table to Mrs Jacobs. “About a haunted housing estate.”

“Cynthia is actually quite statuesque,” said Mrs Jacobs, “And her voice is fairly deep.”

“You can invite whoever you want here,” said Claire. “If you think they can help. But Clive and I will be here. The kids can stay with my uncle.”

Cynthia was indeed statuesque. She stood about five feet 10 inches in her flat, rubber-souled shoes, and wore a black suit, like one Clive wore for work functions. Her iron-grey hair was collar-length and greased back, clinging to her head like a cowl. She was younger than Clive and Claire had expected, probably in her late fifties. Her eyes, which now bore into them from the other side of the dining-room table, were a cold blue.

“So, your daughter is somewhere safe?” she asked in her gravelled voice.

“Yes,” said Claire. ”She’s with her brother at my uncle’s house.”

“And we think she is the main catalyst for this?” she asked Mrs Jacobs, who sat to her left.

“Yes, we think the haunting has been triggered by her getting pregnant,” said Mrs Jacobs.

Clive sighed and looked at the ceiling. He felt ridiculous sitting here in a darkened room, curtains drawn, candles dancing in each corner.

Cynthia nodded. “I’m going to try and communicate with her. It would help if you all joined me.”

Clive laughed humourlessly. “Is this where we all join hands and you say ‘Is there anybody there?’”

“Yes,” said Cynthia.

Claire patted Clive’s hand. “Let’s at least try,” she said.

“Shall we?” said Cynthia, clasping Mrs Jacobs’ right hand. Claire reached across the table and took the left, while clutching hold of Clive’s right. Clive hesitated, staring at Cynthia’s proffered hand, analysing the yellowed, thick fingernails and the un-ironed skin.

Finally, he took it in his own free hand, huffing like a toddler.

Cynthia closed her eyes and took several deep breathes. Claire was watching her intently when she felt something brush against her ankle. She glanced under the table. A man’s face was staring back at her. His expression was imploring, but partly masked by a mess of blood, crusted almost black, and a chunk of his head was missing – a crater of wrecked tissue.

Claire screamed, when she finally found the breath, and leapt from her seat, gasping for air and pointing to the apparition under her dining room table.

“What is it?” demanded Cynthia, eyes now wide open and glaring accusingly at Claire.

Claire continued to point, but the man had gone.

“Claire?” asked Clive, peering under the table and then resting his concerned gaze on her.

“He was there,” said Claire. “John Stanton. He was there!”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said Mrs Jacobs. “Probably trying to get a look up your skirt.” Again, her tone was chastising, as if she thought Claire had somehow encouraged the encounter.

Claire looked at each of them in turn, finally letting her hand drop to her side. “He was there,” she insisted.

“We believe you,” said Cynthia. “But can we get on with contacting the main presence, before we have any more disturbances?”

Claire nodded. The last thing she wanted was to sit back in that chair, place her feet under the table where he could touch them. But she slipped back into her seat, glancing once more at the space where John Stanton had been crouching, and then closed the circle again, by taking Clive and Mrs Jacobs’ hands.

“I want to talk to the spirit of Miriam Stanton,” said Cynthia, voice resonating like a church bell. Clive wondered what Jack and Audrey next door would make of it.

“If you are here, Miriam, give us a sign.”

The mother of pearl lamp shade above the table began to swing gently from, side to side.

“Is that you, Miriam?” asked Cynthia.

The light shade swung more vigorously.

Mrs Jacob’s looked suddenly unsettled, as if only just realising what they were doing.

“It’s her,’ she said. “I can smell her cheap perfume.”

Clive couldn’t smell anything. He glanced at Claire, she met his gaze and gave a quick shake of her head.

“Hello, Miriam,” continued Cynthia. “Thank you for talking to us.”

“She sounds like a chat show host,” hissed Clive. Both Claire and Mrs Jacobs hushed him. Mrs Jacobs now looked like she wished she was somewhere else, which was strange considering this had been her idea, thought Claire.

Cynthia gave a sudden gasp and threw her head back. Claire tensed, waiting for a strange voice to emit from the woman’s mouth. She’d seen enough films to know how a séance worked.

But moments later Cynthia slumped forward without speaking, and looked around the table at each of them. “She says she is worried about the girl. She thinks he is going to harm her.”

“Who, her husband?” asked Claire.

“No,” said Cynthia. “Him.” She pointed at Clive.

For a moment Clive just glared at Cynthia’s accusing finger, digesting what she had just said.

Then he pushed back his chair, releasing both Claire and Mrs Jacob’s hands, and stood.

“Are you serious?” he asked, managing to moderate his voice, but only just. “She actually thinks I would harm my own daughter.”

“I’m just a messenger,” said Cynthia, who was no longer pointing.

“Well send a message right back to Miriam, whatever her surname is…”

“Stanton,” said Mrs Jacobs.

“Tell her that I am not her husband. I love my daughter. I’m bloody mad with her and I think she’s a bloody idiot for getting pregnant at her age, but I would never hurt her.”

Claire lay a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, love, nobody here thinks you would.”

“She does – the phantom woman! She’s been trying to terrify my family out of our house because she thinks I might kill my daughter. Well, she can fuck off!”

Clive shifted his gaze to random areas of the room, as if trying to spot a face in a crowd. “Did you hear that, Miriam? Get out of my home! You can leave the job of looking after my family to me. I am not your sack of shit husband! Do you hear me?”

“I think the whole neighbourhood heard you,” said Mrs Jacobs.

The light above the table had stopped swinging. No-one had noticed exactly when.

“She heard you,” said Cynthia.

“And?” demanded Clive.

“She’s gone,” said Mrs Jacobs, looking sideways at her friend. “Hasn’t she? And the others.”

Cynthia nodded.

“Is that it?” asked Clive, fists still clenched in rage.

“Don’t be fooled by Hollywood, Clive,” said Cynthia. “These things are usually quite easily settled. Miriam has gone. Your manly outburst obviously convinced her.”

“And what about her husband?” asked Claire.

“He won’t hang around now she’s gone,” said Mrs Jacobs.

“How can you be so sure?” asked Claire.

“Because he knows which side his bread is buttered,” replied Mrs Jacobs, standing, resting both shaking hands on the table.

“What does that mean?” asked Clive, squinting at Mrs Jacobs as if that would help decipher her random comment.

“I’m feeling a bit unsteady,” said Mrs Jacobs, “So I’m going to head home. I’ll see you at the meeting on Thursday, Cynthia.”

“Do you need Clive to walk you back?” asked Claire.

“Absolutely not.” Mrs Jacobs was already at the dining-room door, moving uncharacteristically fast.

Cynthia stood too, turning briefly to check herself in the mirror on the wall above the fireplace. “I’d better be off too,” she said. “Shall we say thirty pounds?”

“Why would we want to say that?” asked Clive.

“That’s my fee,” said Cynthia.

“Fee? No-one said anything about a fee. You were here 10 minutes,” stormed Clive.

“I won’t charge extra for my extreme efficiency,” said Cynthia.

Mrs Jacobs’ hand was still shaking as she turned the key to her front door and pushed it gingerly open.

“John?” she called, pushing the door closed behind her, and closing her eyes. He was back. She could feel him, sulking.

“I thought so,” she said, pushing open the living room door. “I knew if I got rid of her you’d be straight back here. Just like when she was alive. Round here for some fun, and then back to her for dinner. And you climbed into that poor woman’s bed. Did she remind you of Miriam? Did you get confused? Think you could rekindle something? Get her to forgive you for everything you did to her? Did you really think she’d be interested in you? Or were you hoping to spend some time with your daughter? Maybe you thought you could have some father-daughter bonding time. I’m sure she’d forgive you for bashing her skull in with a hammer and shutting her baby in a cupboard to die. All families have their quarrels, after all.”

Mrs Jacobs laughed as she shuffled across the living room.

“Well they’ve gone now, so you’re stuck with me. Who else would have you?”

Mrs Jacobs slumped into her favourite armchair, arms folded defensively.

Above her the tasselled light shade began to tremble, and then to swing from side to side.

Mrs Jacobs, sat up, clutching her chest.

“Miriam?” she whispered.

fiction
Matthew Batham
Matthew Batham
Read next: I See You
Matthew Batham

I love to write. I’ve written children’s novels, books for young adults, loads of horror and quirky stories which have found homes in magazines and on websites in the UK and in the States. I’ve written romance novels and even some erotica.

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