After unbuckling him from his car seat, I expected Benny to launch himself across the gravel path with his usual buoyancy. Instead, a small hand slipped into my own as he stayed beside me. I was startled to see my fearless five-year-old looking suddenly so small and still.
I found my gaze drawn irrevocably up at the hulk of Hartley Manor. From this angle it appeared almost to be leaning over us, towering, teetering, taking our measure.
“We used to call it skull house.” I replied, keeping my tone light.
Benny managed to tear his gaze away from the dark windows that could be rotted teeth against the white bone exterior walls, “Yes,” he said, almost dreamily. “It does look like a skull, doesn’t it?”
I squeezed his little fingers gently, “Come,” I said with an indulgent smile, “Let me show you how un-scary grandma’s house really is.”
He allowed me to lead him across the path and up the stone step. I let us inside using the key that was given to me by my late-mother’s lawyer. An old familiar knot was suddenly present low in my belly as the door swung wide; the phantom anxiety of days of my youth when my sister Jean and I would visit her here and worry which version of our schizophrenic mother we would be spending the day with.
It was cool inside, hazy with dust and dim with the windows all shuttered. Benny hesitated on the step, an echo of my childhood self, “Come, Benny,” I said gently.
“You said it was haunted.”
I smiled as warmly as I could against the creeping chill curling around my back from the depths of the house, “My sister and I used to pretend it was haunted. Just a game, though. Ghosts aren’t real.”
After another hesitant, squinting look, Benny followed me into the house.
Inside was not very different to memory; except of course that everything was coated in a furry layer of dust. Clearly mother had not spent her last days – or weeks for that matter – in the parlour or the lounge, from what I could see through the doorways the thick dust on the floor was completely undisturbed.
“Where did you play ghosts?” Benny asked me, his eyes seeming to look everywhere at once.
I took his hand once more and headed across the modest entrance hall, keen to disperse any remnants of his fear. The sound of our shoes that ordinarily would have echoed around the hall was this time swallowed by the dust padding. We passed the wide sweeping staircase and went through a narrow service door into the huge kitchen at the back of the property. The air was thick in here, the dust clotting in the back of my throat and making my nose twitch.
The large familiar kitchen conjured a swift wave of nostalgia and the first vestiges of grief niggled at the very edges of my consciousness. This was a safe room, I remembered, when mother was in here cooking or baking or just wiping down the surfaces, we knew it was a kind version of her we would encounter. It was always long sweeping skirts, a plain blouse and an apron in here. She smelled of hot soap and whatever recipe she was wresting with at the time. In here, she was almost like a real mother, the kind of mother my friends could boast of. In here she was safe.
“What’s that?” He asked, voice aquiver.
I turned my gaze to the corner of the room where I knew he would be staring. “It’s a mannequin.” I said through dry lips.
It stood in the darkness, dustiest corner of the room, dressed exactly as I had just remembered my kitchen-mother; in a long paisley skirt with a rotted, moth-eaten apron. Spiders had been here, probably hundreds of them, for the mannequin was swathed in webs and garlands of dust.
“Mother was sometimes a dressmaker,” I explained, my voice soft in the gloom. “They are all dressed like her.”
I turned away from the figure lurking in the corner and rested one hand gently on the countertop by the sink, letting nostalgia sweep over me. It was, if possible, colder still. The chill brushed against my jaw and throat like a lover’s caress sending a shudder down my spine. Beside me, Benny mirrored my shiver, his eyes were big and glassy, on the look out for those ghosts.
“Listen.” I urged.
All was still.
The laughter came within moments; at first the gentle sound of a child giggling but soon as shrill and tittering as the chuckle of a lunatic. Benny’s huge eyes, round as plates, found the culprit immediately, “The fireplace?” He asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
We listened again. I watched his lips blossom suddenly into the most radiant of smiles, “Birds!” He laughed.
I crouched down by the dry, dusty hearth. “The ghosts of children who died here.” I said with a playful smile.
Benny knelt beside me to peer up into the black maw of the chimney. It was crusted with cobwebs, dead insects and yet more dust. The old brick looked even more ancient than I remembered, blistered and pockmarked. What was probably once the old house’s main place to stew, boil and roast was now an empty, aged hole in the wall. Decrepit from lack of use, ancient and not updated with the rest of the kitchen in order to preserve its ‘authenticity’, but more likely because of cost.
The tittering came again, this time it was obviously the sound of birds chattering away somewhere above. The acoustics of the chimney gave the sound its ghostly quiver. Jean and I sat here many a visit, listening to the birds, watching the dust fall when they moved about up there. Once, a great chunk of brick was knocked loose and came clanging down the shaft. It hit the disused hearth and the impact sent a great wave of dust billowing up. We cried of course, being only young girls at the time. I will never forget the shapes that seemed to emerge from that gossamer cloud; skeletal fingers, and reaching hands beckoning, clawing at us. And still the laughter rang out.
“Sometimes it sounds like shrieking.” I murmured, and couldn’t stop my gaze flickering to the mannequin in the corner, leering at us with its blank ghastly face.
Benny grinned at me from the hearth; his hair was shifting ever so slightly as air gently whistled down the chimney. It hadn’t been windy at all outside but here was a breeze all the same. Heaving in and out again; like the slow, ragged breathing of a sleeping beast. If the house was a skull this chimney surely was its windpipe.
“Out of there.” I said briskly, getting to my feet. “You’re getting all covered in dust and coal.”
I leaned across the great marble countertop and opened the windows to try and clear the stuffy air and as I did, I was brought abruptly to a halt by the sight of huge stone statues in the back yard down by the overgrown rose bushes.
Larger than life, the statues depicted Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and lined the great gravel path down into the gardens. There was Diana Huntress, a single breast exposed, and a quiver of arrows slung across her back. Aphrodite stood opposite her. She did not have an exposed bosom, but the strip of cloth that slashed across her diagonally left very little to the imagination. Mother always said those statues came with the grand house and she was very fond of them, I remembered. She might have sung to them, or talked to them, something about them was niggling at me, demanding that I remember.
“Garden ghosts.” I murmured to myself.
The memory rose like a great belch, moving painfully up through my shoulders and burst free into my mind just as loudly. The memory of the fluidity of stone; how those statues had turned and moved and pumped their arms as they ran towards me, stone breasts leaping like flesh. But no, that memory was false too. Those statues had never moved, I told myself, it was simply a trick of the light and the waving sheets on the washing line as crisp and white as those still stone statues.
I remembered now that she would dance with them, or at least pretend to. Wrapped in a great white sheet that she plucked from the washing line, she would thrust and she would bend, flailing around like a woman possessed by the music that did not exist. When she was dressed like that in a crisp white sheet, a mimicry of the statues, we were to be careful. Although the dancing and the flailing might suggest this was a carefree hippie version of her, it was also a spiteful version. With sharp white teeth, grabbing hands and digging nails if you disturbed her.
“Where else?” Benny asked, excited now. “Upstairs?”
I nodded, sensing another memory on the tip of my tongue; a shadow in my mind’s eye that slipped back into the depths of my subconscious before I could quite grasp it. I suddenly wanted to tell Benny to stop, we should wait down here for Jean, but he was already gone.
My gaze slid from the statues back to the fireplace, the chill creeping up my spine again like skinless fingertips. The air was moving there still, little specks of dust in the light heaving in and out of the open maw, never quite able to escape it. I could feel the mannequin’s fleshless gaze on me from the corner and I deliberately avoided looking back that way for the eerie familiarity it summoned.
The slap of Benny’s shoes on the stairs were as loud as gunshots in the echoing gloom and snapped me out of my reverie. As I followed, I became steadily more aware of the beat of the pulse in my wrists and throat; my tongue felt thick and metallic against my teeth. It was that memory, moving sleepily in the back of my mind, coming forward but not quickly enough.
“Which way?” Benny hollered from above.
The boy had gone too far ahead. I had no idea what lay up there these days, what if she had medication left out, and lord knew almost everything was interesting to a five-year-old boy. I hurried up the stairs behind him and just caught sight of his shoe whipping down the right wing of the house and out of sight.
“Benny!” I hissed.
I stopped on the landing and my whole body screamed not to take another step down that corridor. It was silly, irrational even, but the shadow in my mind was tumbling, rushing toward me demanding that I remember, that I stop before… before…?
But it was gone. The memory slithered out of my hand before I could grasp it, leaving only a dark foreboding in its wake and a bitter taste, rising like poisonous gas.
Benny peered into the first door which led to the studio, a large room with mirrored walls and access to a small terrace balcony. In one of her lives, mother was a dance teacher in a tight tank top, thick leggings and a rigid ballet skirt. Up here she was strict, firm, but not hurtful. Young girls would flock to the manor every Saturday morning in their tutus and ballet shoes. Jean and I took part for a while, Jean perhaps longer than I for she had more of a propensity for it. I remember that I grew tired of mother’s waspish remarks about my balance quite quickly. We would have birthday parties in this studio sometimes, if we were here for them that is. As the years moved on so did our patience with our mother’s quirks, even as children, and we spent increasingly more time living with our father.
Benny skipped back towards me and stood peering up the next, slightly narrower staircase. “What’s up there?” He asked.
I had to clear my dust clouded throat before I could reply, “it’s all bedrooms up there.” I told him. My heart was still kicking against my ribs as I gazed down the dark hallway, relieved that Benny was back here with me. There was a single wooden stool right at the end of the corridor sitting benignly beneath a dark painting that had been trying to snatch my attention.
“Did you sleep up there?” He asked, his innocent disbelief stemming from his own life experience in our small two bedroom apartment back home.
I nodded, “sometimes. Shall we go up and see?”
I followed him up slowly, marvelling at how dusty it was up here too. All along the banister, grey and furry. Mother hadn’t been well for some years and her documents showed that she stopped paying the cleaners six months before but this amount of dust seemed almost excessive.
“Which room, which room!” He sang bouncing from doorway to doorway.
Mothers suite of rooms were to the right, the carpet there significantly more worn through where her slippered feet had dragged back and forth over the years. I directed Benny to the left towards the guest rooms. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to see in her bedroom now that we were here.
It was dark up here, the curtains and shutters drawn against the world. She had hidden up here and almost starved herself to death a hundred times in the last few years. Social care workers would drop in often enough that she would force herself to eat and be lucid, her biggest fear was being forced to leave the manor and end up in a retirement home or hospice.
I pulled back the heavy velvet curtains at the landing windows and blinked against the brightness that flooded in. Benny was already nipping in and out of the various rooms trying to figure out which one had been my bedroom. I knew from previous visits that all of our things had been stripped and binned from the bedrooms years ago. Mother hated that we didn’t visit often.
Up here didn’t feel safe like the kitchen. There were different versions of mother that existed up here. Sometimes she could be sweet and comforting, other times she was harsh and unforgiving.
I pushed open the window and sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. It was fetid in the house, the air fruity, thick and musty like being inside of a rotting carcass.
“Any ghosts up here?” Benny asked.
My gaze slewed to the right towards mothers suite and I stared steadily at the partially open door. It was darker still in there, a complete absence of light that seemed to bleed into the hallway like a weeping swamp. As I stared I became increasingly more sure that that darkness was spreading, reaching toward me. Any second mothers skeletal hand was going to appear around the frame. White bone fingers against dark wood. A second hand would appear around the door. A pale face with wide snarling lips. The sharp snap of her hand on my bare skin.
My heart froze in my chest at the familiar sound. For a millisecond I was certain that I could feel the sting of her slap on my cheek. But it wasn’t me. I whirled around just as Benny cried out from behind me. He was cupping the back of his hand, his mouth open in a little ‘o’ of shock. For a moment all I could do was stare in horror.
“Did she slap you?” I hissed.
He looked puzzled, and hurt.
“What happened, Benny?” I tried again, moving toward him and taking his hand gently into my own.
He shrugged, tears swimming in his little eyes. The back of his hand was pink, but not from a slap. I could see the twin pinprick dots of the spider bite in the middle of the swelling. My relief was tumultuous, warm and rolling, I was making myself jumpy with all this talk of ghosts.
“Did your mummy used to slap you?” Benny asked.
I was amazed at how astute he was, “yes.” I admitted. “Sometimes she was so sweet and loving and tucked us in to bed up here. Sometimes she prowled the hall in her long dark robe and slapped us for getting out of bed.”
“She was a mean mummy.” He declared.
I cupped his cheek delicately, “she was a sick mummy. She couldn’t help it. She had multiple personalities, and some of them were mean. It’s why Jean and I lived with grandad mostly.”
“I’m sorry you had a scary mummy.” He said and wrapped one arm around my middle in a half hearted hug.
I couldn’t help but dart a glance back towards mothers rooms where the darkness was gathering like cobwebs, clinging in all the corners.
“Can you hear that?” Benny whispered.
“Hear…” I stopped mid question as the distant shuffling reached my ears.
Scrape. Scrape. Tap, tap, tap.
“What is that?” Benny asked me.
Scrape. Scrape. Tap, tap, tap.
My whole body was frozen, all except my heart which was hammering a frenzy against my rib cage. It was a familiar sound, an old familiar sound. I wracked my brain but I could not summon forth the memory that knew what it was.
Scrape. Scrape. Tap, tap, tap.
Benny leaned over the banister, his hands white and stark. He looked up at me and swallowed, “is aunty Jean here?”
I glanced out the window, expecting to see Jean’s black mini, but could see no other cars parked on the gravel by ours. There was no one else here.
Scrape. Scrape. Tap, tap, tap.
“Dancers.” I remembered suddenly. “Dancers in the studio.”
Before I could stop him Benny bounded down the stairs, leaving a cloud of billowing dust flurrying up in my face. I choked on my shout, wanting to call him back for the sheer terror of what he might find down there.
Of course, I had to follow. My heart was beating in the back of my throat, the sharp taste of fear squirting into my mouth.
“Benny, stop!” I shouted as he flung the studio door wide open.
His eyes scanned the room where the sound of the dancers feet was coming from. Then he turned to me, paused half down the staircase, and grinned.
“Ghosts aren’t real, remember.”
Scrape. Scrape. Tap, tap, tap.
I knew that sound, was so certain from all the times I had sat outside and waited for the class to be over. It was the sound of the dancer version of my mother doing a specific move in the middle of the room where the floor was rougher than it should be. In here she could find a kind of peace, even after the girls stopped coming and the classes stopped. It was also in here that my mother killed herself.
With a hand pressed over my rushing heart I moved to stand beside him and look into the room. Sick dread demanded that I turn and run out of this house, grab Benny and flee before… before?
Suddenly I was in the doorway, looking in at the mirrored walls. Odd that the windows in here were not shuttered. Daylight streamed in through the open – open! – terrace door, along with a gentle breeze and the enticing smell of freshly cut grass, which couldn’t be right of course because the grounds were untended.
There were no ghost dancers in the middle of the room.
“What…” before I could form my question it happened again.
Scrape. Scrape. Tap, tap, tap.
My eyes found the swinging balcony door first, loose and damaged in its frame, each turn of the breeze had it flapping with a tap, tap, tap. The scrape, I saw next, was caused by an overgrown tree pressing a branch against the window like a thick rotted thumb, heavy and slow to move in the gentle breeze.
“No ghosts.” Benny declared. He stopped and peeped at his reflection in the long mirrored wall of the studio.
Instead of relief, what I felt was a dark curiosity was calling to me from the balcony. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel coming in here, the room where it happened. My feet were moving towards the open doorway before my mind realised what I was doing.
She threw herself from the balcony, they said. In one of her fits of madness, no doubt.
But why, mother? Was it finally too much? All those voices, all those people that existed within her, was it all finally too overwhelming, too much for her to bear. Did they talk to each other? I wondered. All the people who lived inside her.
I stepped out onto the balcony and sipped the sweet, reviving air. I looked down at the huge expanse of gardens, once lovingly tended now overgrown and snarled. The great stone statues were there, white and still and strong. I took pause for a moment and watched the sheets that were draped around them rustle and flap in the breeze and wondered why I felt so strange.
A great gust of warm air suddenly came from behind me, through me and for an instant I felt engulfed, surrounded by a great white sheet like a child climbing inside a freshly stripped duvet cover on the floor. Hot, breathless. Then it was past me, tumbling and turning over the edge of the balcony, out of sight in an instant.
I almost lost myself over the edge of the balcony in my haste to see what had fallen. I half expected to see my mothers curdled corpse laying there on the paving slabs beneath, but there was nothing. Only reaching weeds greedily splitting through the slabs.
This was insane, my mind was running away from me and projecting ghosts where there were none. I felt on edge, jittery, like every nerve ending was exposed and throbbing. We had to get back out the front to wait for Jean so I could calm my racing nerves.
It was when I turned to check on Benny that I saw her. Only for a fraction of a second, but it was her. My mother standing in the open doorway to the balcony.
She couldn’t be there, and yet she was. I could even see her reflection in the mirrored wall to my left, clad only in a thin white nighty and slippers, her face more haggard than I remembered, lips peeled back as she screamed in silent terror. Before I could move, before I could breathe she rushed towards me, surrounding me in the same warm, gossamer whiteness as before. Then she was through me, spilling over the balcony edge once more. Gone before I could even process what I was seeing.
There was a shrill whine in the air, which I only distantly realised was coming from me. I knew I had to look over the balcony again, I had to see what lay below but I was terrified, my imagination flying away from me.
The ghost of my mother falling to her death, and yet it was familiar, this scene, almost like I’d watching this tumble play out before. It was uncanny, this feeling of deja vu, a rising surety that I had seen this all before as a child. It was why I was so afraid of this room, why I couldn’t focus on my dance lessons back then. But how could I have seen my mothers ghost years before her death?
There was that niggling again, a memory demanding to be heard but my subconscious was still shoving it back as roughly as it could, trying to protect me from the madness that might follow remembering.
I peered boldly down from the balcony again and felt the slow hard thunk of leaden terror drop into my gut. This time, below, on the slabs lay a mangled corpse.
No, not a corpse. A mannequin.
It all came flooding back then, triggered by the sight of that thing crumpled on the ground in the white nighty my mother sometimes wore. The mannequin, the clothes, the multiple personalities.
A sharp movement from the corner of my eye snatched my attention away from the ground. The stone statues, those garden ghosts. They were moving. Twitching like puppets on a string at first, one step, two step, on their way. Turning their heads to look up at me with those soulless white marble sockets.
The echo of my mother was right before me again, destined to fall from the balcony over and over in her dying loop.
The icy finger of sheer terror pressed against the base of my spine. The full force of what I’d been trying to remember since the kitchen spilled into my mind like poison from a snakebite “Benny!”
I barged through the apparition of the ghost masquerading as my mother, clawing my way back into the corridor as more memories clambered their way into my head. The house was the skull, the chimney was the windpipe and the heart… the heart was two doors down.
I froze as I tore into the corridor. Benny was already there, reaching dreamily for the doorknob that she always left locked. The wooden stool that sat beneath the dark painting that had drawn my attention before was now occupied. A slim mannequin sat there, dressed in the long dark robes that my upstairs, slapping mother would prowl around in. It seemed to leak a dark malice into the corridor, a stark, steaming hatred for me in particular. It was warning me not to interfere.
Not that room Benny, don’t go in there, not the forbidden room at the end of the corridor.
But he was already there, determined to keep on proving that ghosts weren’t real. He was completely oblivious to the mannequin sitting beside him that hadn’t been there before. He moved as if he were in a dream, as if he had no will of his own.
I shrieked at him to stop but my throat was so swollen with terror that barely a strangled gasp escaped me.
From behind me, I could hear the clack-clack of wooden feet on the stairs. My kitchen mother, climbing up to join us. I couldn’t bear to turn and look, I couldn’t seem to move at all, I could only watch as my son leaned forward with an outstretched hand, reaching for the doorknob.
The door sprung open of its own volition, of course, beckoning him. All he had to do was nudge it with his pudgy little hand.
Then I was there behind him, snatching at his arm and the back of his shirt, desperate to drag him away, get back outside and gone from this frightful place.
“The dressmakers room.” Benny said in a dazed voice that was not his own.
We were both still now, enthralled by the dark magic of this house, this room, as the door slowly swung open to reveal the most frightening room of my childhood.
I instantly recognised three more of my mothers ‘personalities’, mannequins clothed just like them. There was the dancer in her leggings and skirt, one leg sticking straight up in the air in a mock stance. Next was the gardener in her cargo shorts and gloves, there was even soil clotted around the soles of her trainers. The third stood in jeans and a blouse, arms crossed looking vacantly out the window into the distance. I wondered distantly if any of these were my real mother.
Very slowly, all of the mannequins turned their heads in unison to look at us frozen in the doorway.
I remembered now. I had seen this all before. Memory flooded through me, hot and cold like a fever. Haunted figures locked away in the dressmakers room, I was an errant child who stole the key and looked inside. I terrified myself half to death when I came face to face with these figures.
All these things that had mothered me over the years were not my mother. They were the creatures that haunted her, tormented her all this time. The truth, I was coming to realise, was that she did not have multiple personalities; she was possessed by this house and its occupants. They had locked her here in an endless frenzy of haunting until she could take no more and joined them completely, at last. I could see them all now, in this room, all dressed precisely in the clothes she had sewn for them at the desk and machine beside them.
The sound of the wooden footsteps stopped just behind us, there were two shadows out the corner of my eyes, reminding me that they were there. I held fast onto Benny’s shoulder and finally let my gaze drop to those things that had not been here in this room the last time I peeked.
There were two new mannequins in the middle of the room, sitting together, each with one arm outstretched, beckoning us. A woman and a child, dressed in clothes to match Benny’s and my own.
I knew then that I was home, I knew then that I would never, ever leave.