Ghost in the dust (Final)
Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Word Count: 3183
Summary: This is a short story with a ghostly element. And as they say on all horror movie posters these days, that part is based on true events. Which was the spark for the story. And rather than be a short story about isolated events, I wanted to do a short piece about a whole life.
Ghost in the dust
Emmeline could not speak.
Standing on the pavement in Rawstorne Street, she felt like the village idiot, staring at the two men in their suits, her thoughts fractured between long ago and here and now.
‘All right?’ the younger man said.
‘I think so,’ she said, for the sake of saying something.
The older one, looked in his 50s, said, ‘Come in, love. Have a sit down.’
The two men had kitchen chairs and a table in the front room of this old place. Unseen workmen were bumping about and hectic adverts, distorted and unintelligible, reverberated from a radio somewhere upstairs. Dust cracked under Emmeline’s feet. The two men explained who they were. The older man was an architect, the younger a surveyor.
She had been passing the hollow building on her way to see Joyce round the corner in the modern flats. Joyce was her friend and boss at the post office sorting depot. But Emmeline had not been able to resist stopping to ask the men what they were doing to the houses, a row of six derelict shells. She told them she used to live in that street when she was a girl, before the war.
‘Renovations,’ the surveyor said.
‘Former glories,’ the architect said.
It was a narrow, dirty-bricked Georgian street, with front doors opening right onto the pavement and entrance halls with twisting staircases. It had changed little apart from today’s cluttered parked cars and the decay of time.
‘I used to live next door – 26,’ Emmeline said.
The men laughed.
‘What’s so funny?’ she said.
The architect said, ‘My colleague here got quite a fright in number 26 just last week.’
‘Saw a ghost.’
‘I don’t know if it was a ghost,’ said the surveyor, who was boyish looking. ‘They all think it’s hilarious.’ He nodded to the open door, beyond which the builders were working.
‘She disappeared, though, didn’t she?’ the architect said. ‘Vanished.’
‘What was she like?’ Emmeline said.
The surveyor described the woman in detail, and it was then that Emmeline’s thoughts snapped in disbelief.
‘All right?’ the architect said.
‘Looks like it’s you that saw the ghost,’ the surveyor said.
No, she hadn’t seen it. But on hearing her described, Emmeline knew for certain she had once lived with that vanishing woman, forty-odd years ago.
Siobhan knew her mother was moody as soon as she came in.
‘Clear this rubbish away,’ Emmeline said.
Just because she liked to do her homework in their snug council-flat kitchen. Siobhan switched off the Duran Duran tape playing on her cassette. ‘Thanks for your support, Mum. I’ve only got a mock tomorrow.’
‘Then you’ll want to eat your dinner and have plenty of energy for it. Anyway, you can’t study with that racket on.’
‘You’re in a strop. Did you go round to Joyce’s?’
Siobhan piled up her books, paper, pens, cassette and other ‘rubbish’ and took them to her room. She came back and said, ‘So?’
‘So what happened at Joyce’s? Did you talk about your retirement party?’
‘Yes. I’ve decided to have a picnic on the Heath.’
‘Won’t be much of a party. Disco in the pub sounded better.’
‘Not to me. A picnic will be more friendly. I’m actually looking forward to it now.’
‘So why the mood?’
Emmeline looked like someone had pinched her. ‘It’s nothing – just, I was walking down Rawstorne Street – you know where your aunts and me lived when we were kids –’
‘– and they’re doing up our old house.’
‘I went into the one next door to where we lived. It’s odd …’
‘It brought back my mother,’ Emmeline said, and her mouth tightened and she looked down at the table.
‘You all right?’
‘Everyone keeps asking me that today.’
‘What was she like?’
‘What do you mean?
‘I mean, what was she like? You never talk about granny.’
Terrifying. She had terrified them all.
When that architect described the woman on the stairs in Rawstorne Street, Emmeline’s skin tingled with her mother’s presence. Despite all these years her glowering mother still unsettled her.
As children they were always on the move. Emmeline remembered them leaving a flat in the back-doubles off Euston Road, before it got the underpass and was covered in offices. They moved into a basement in Liverpool Road – Emmeline, her two older sisters and her mother. Sotheby Road was next. Two bedrooms to squeeze into there – such luxury. Later they found themselves round the corner in Petherton Road, before moving onto Rawstorne Street.
How quiet the streets were, how polite everyone was, clanking trams and tastier food.
Only that’s not how Emmeline remembered it.
She remembered her mother beating her elder sister. She remembered being silent with fear. Mum was tight-lipped, all-seeing – an unforgiving spirit.
Nell, her eldest sister, was nine years older than Emmeline. Then came Rose, just two years older. And that was not all. Her mother had had two other children before the three sisters. Harry and Kate had died during the flu epidemic. Her mother never spoke about them.
‘So what was she like?’ Siobhan said. ‘You know Mr Otis says we could do a family tree for our history project. And I thought, yeah, could be all right. I don’t know much about my grandparents.’
‘There’s no family history. Just the boring slog of living.’
‘Why don’t you want to talk about it?’
‘Why? Because there are no fond memories, no romance, no riches or successes.’
Siobhan was silent and Emmeline realised her tone had become sharp. ‘Sorry, Siobhan. It’s just that we were so desperate to escape our mother that we jumped at the first men who would have us. We all made a terrible mess of our lives.’
‘Put the water on the stove,’ Emmeline said, and went to her bedroom, to the old box on the floor of her wardrobe.
‘I don’t know much about your grandparents, Siobhan. No idea where or when they were born. But there you are’ – she handed over a black-and-white snapshot, the image cracked with age – ‘that’s our mother.’
‘You’ve got her picture?’ The teenager looked at the gaunt face of a woman at the seaside. Sitting on pebbles with her back resting on the concrete wall of a promenade, the woman glared at the photographer. Grey hair tied up, a hat and plenty of clothes on, even solid leather-soled shoes.
‘So that’s granny,’ Siobhan said. ‘Looks like she’s having the time of her life.’
‘Yes, that’s my mother’s happy face.’ Emmeline peered over Siobhan’s shoulder. ‘God help us.’
‘You don’t need much, just dates of birth and marriage – for a family tree, I mean.’
‘I don’t know my father’s name, Siobhan, let alone his birthday.’
‘Mum, you must know something.’
Why she was resisting Siobhan’s natural curiosity? There was no sordid mystery about their father. Their mother hadn’t buried him in a garden. It was simply the way things had been. You did not delve into your parents’ relationship, as you’d call it these days. You might step on adult rage or despair. So Emmeline had been a dumb witness during her own childhood. Quiet and watchful. Life in a silent movie.
Mother cleaned houses or worked in the Black Cat cigarette factory on Mornington Crescent. She skivvied. She was a drudge with three hangers-on. What was there to tell Siobhan?
‘I have no memories of my father,’ Emmeline said. ‘Rose saw him once or twice, but never spoke to him. Nell saw him occasionally, but she’s no longer around, of course.’
‘What was granny like, then?
‘You had to behave when she came home. No cheeky remarks. She’d tell Nell to put the water on for tea and usually shout at her for not having washed Rose and me.’
From the age of four Emmeline was wary of her temper, having seen their mother thrash Nell with a hairbrush. She remembered their mother dragging her elder sister out from under the kitchen table and swinging at her again and again.
‘Not surprised you all ran away from the old dragon,’ Siobhan said. ‘Was aunt Nell the first to get out?’
‘That’s right. She married Charlie.’
‘You never liked him, did you?’
‘He made my flesh crawl, even when he was dying of emphysema. Happy days.’
Nell became a stranger to Rose and Emmeline after she married Charlie, a printer and wage earner. She did not want to know the cast-off sisters and mother.
Around that time Penton Street became the last stop for Rose and Emmeline with their mother. Having fallen ill during their time in Rawstorne Street, the 63-year-old woman died soon after they moved in over the shop.
‘We had to live with Nell,’ Emmeline said. ‘Big sister was not pleased. She and Charlie had bought a house and had lodgers. They wanted rent. At 14 I went with Rose to work in the cigarette factory.’
Emmeline had reached a closed door in her memories. She could not tell it all to her daughter, not right now. Maybe later – one day soon.
Charlie raped Rose. How do you tell your daughter that her uncle did that to her aunt? Rose had eventually confided in Emmeline and it had been their secret for forty years. Emmeline could still hear Rose’s tearless sobs. They could not face telling Nell and going to the police was unthinkable. Rape was too shameful.
What Emmeline said to Siobhan was, ‘He was a dirty old man, Charlie. That’s why I didn’t take you to see them much. He had women when Nell’s back was turned. I heard him visiting one of the female lodgers late one evening. He’d go out for walks at night – not to the pub, he didn’t drink – but just out. Coming back from work at the Black Cat one night I saw him strolling by Kings Cross station. The bus I was on stopped and there he was in the gloom. He spotted me but didn’t wave, just turned slowly up York Way. I wondered what he was doing.’
Siobhan said, ‘Any idea?’
‘I didn’t want to go there, didn’t want to know what went on in his dee-dee mind.’
‘Dee-dee? Like creepy?’
‘Secretive and loathsome,’ Emmeline said. ‘At home he liked to tape the conversations of visitors while he was in another room. He took photos from his window of people sunbathing in their gardens. But for years, whenever we couldn’t get out of a Christmas dinner or summer visit to Nell and Charlie’s, we all had to sit there and smile and pretend he was one of the family.’
When the war ended, Rose had money saved from her munitions work and moved to Canada. Emmeline was left behind.
As her mother released memories that had ambushed her feelings for years, Siobhan was almost alarmed to hear Emmeline talk of a never-mentioned subject – Clifton.
‘Mad palpitating love it wasn’t. He was there, I was there. We both had our reasons for marrying. I couldn’t bear living with Nell and her prowler. As for Clifton, he was homosexual – gay.’
‘And you didn’t realise?’
‘No. I suppose I was stupid.’
‘I’m not saying that, Mum.’
‘Even when we didn’t consummate the marriage it took me months to understand.’
Clifton was a neighbour. timid, someone she could talk to. They never discussed anything important or personal, just passing-the-time-of-day-type things.
The day she married Clifton, Charlie was there, of course, enjoying himself. After the register office they all had a drink in the back room of the Hare and Hounds on Upper Street.
Emmeline said, ‘Charlie came up to me – “Here, girl, if things don’t turn out sweet with your pansy, come and see me.” He’d known all about Clifton and I still didn’t click. Such a fool!’
‘No, Mum, don’t say that.’
‘You’re lucky. You kids know it all these days, but I had no idea Cliff was like that. Course, I knew there were pansies – that’s what we called them – we all did. They were funny. But the idea that men fell in love with each other – well, I never knew it was illegal because I never knew it existed.’
Clifton rarely spoke to Emmeline once they married. The silent treatment day in, day out. She knew he regretted the marriage and didn’t know what to do.
‘I had to get out,’ Emmeline said, ‘so I ran away again.’
She and Rose had always been allies. Rose was working as a nanny in Canada and told her sister to come out. Emmeline started saving.
‘We all married badly. That’s not to say the marriages didn’t last. They did.’
Nell and Rose (whose Canadian husband turned out to be a self-pitying wife basher) stayed with their men to the smothering, frosty ends of their lives.
‘Uncle Charlie died when I was at primary school,’ Siobhan said, ‘but I remember him. He smoked those slim cigars.’
‘He died gasping for breath. What a joyous funeral. Even Nell got drunk, her first booze-up since the war. Rose’s Canadian died a few years ago, overweight and diabetic. We all grabbed the first strangers that came along. I grabbed the first two.’ Emmeline left Clifton and later abandoned Siobhan’s father, a truck driver she’d met in Canada – yet another boozer.
‘No one should live with an alchy, Mum.’
‘My leaving him was hard on you, though. It might have been better to have at least met your father. Then you’d have some memory of him.’
‘Mum, he’s never even sent a postcard.’
‘That’s true. We hoped a man, any man, would take us away from rags and silence under mother’s eye. I swapped that for Clifton and your barfly father.’
‘You didn’t cling to your wrecks. That’s what matters.’
Emmeline looked at Siobhan and realised how good it was to have her to sit with like this. ‘You’re right. Rose and Nell grew old with husbands they barely spoke to. Decades of silence and grunts.’
Siobhan sang, ‘Stand by your man.’
‘Yeah. Stand by the man you can’t stand. You know, maybe that’s something I’ve got in common with dear old granny.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I remember Nell saying our father was always smartly dressed, usually in a doorway being ushered out by our mother.’
‘She didn’t stand by her man, either.’
‘Nell thought he was married to someone else, somebody well off. Said he was the son of Sir Somebody-or-Other. Seems we were his bastards.’
‘Granny was his fancy woman?’
‘I don’t know about fancy, but something like that.’
‘How did she end up having so many children with him?’
‘Maybe we weren’t all his. Who knows?’
‘It must have been hard for her,’ Siobhan said.
‘Nell also said our father wanted to help us, but mum wouldn’t accept his money. He would find out where we were living and she would pack us all up and scurry off somewhere new. Cutting her nose to spite her face – just like her.’
Emmeline stared out the little kitchen window at a patch of green that divided the blocks of flats. ‘Maybe I’m being unfair to her.’
‘Perhaps our father had been in the habit of turning up with his money. And when he did, maybe our mother often ended up with another baby.’
As they ate their meal, Emmeline said, ‘She haunted my childhood – a living bloody ghost.’
‘What are you talking about, Mum?’
Emmeline, feeling she had grown closer to her maturing daughter this evening, suddenly didn’t care if she felt silly describing her fright earlier that day in Rawstorne Street.
‘I was talking to these two fellers doing up the houses in our old street. I told them I lived in number 26 and the older man, an architect, said, “Well my colleague here won’t go in that one any more.”’
‘Why not?’ Siobhan said.
‘Thought he saw a ghost, apparently.’
‘What was it like?’
‘She was at the top of stairs staring down at him.’
‘A squatter?’ Siobhan said.
‘No. The architect had just been checking the work upstairs, seen nobody and come down again. The younger one, a surveyor, then came in from the street and saw the woman on the stairs. He called his boss out to hall, but when he looked up again the woman was gone. They checked upstairs again but it was empty.’
‘What did she look like?’
‘Well, that’s just it, why I’ve been thinking about my mother all day. The surveyor bloke said she had a long skirt, grey hair in a bun, had her hand at her neck, like she was clasping or rubbing it.’
‘Rubbing her neck?’
‘Yes, like this’ – Emmeline massaged her throat. ‘You see, Siobhan, that was our mother to a T. The clothes, hair, and she used to hold her neck like that. She was a smoker.’
Siobhan gave her mother a questioning look.
Emmeline said, ‘It’s true. The next year she died of throat cancer.’
‘I don’t believe in ghosts. But this is the strangest thing. I told Joyce about it and she said it must have been our mother.’
‘You never know,’ Siobhan said.
‘I can’t believe it. And why Rawstorne Street of all the places we lived.’
‘Maybe she liked it.’
‘She never liked anything.’
Siobhan watched her mother playing with a tattered tissue. ‘Sure you’re all right, Mum?’
‘One day I was playing outside in Rawstorne Street. Summer it was, always alive with kids. But suddenly everyone disappeared. They’d gone in, called by their mothers for tea. I carried on playing, swinging from a fruit box tied by old rope to a lamppost. It was lovely. For once I had it all to myself.’
A pause. Siobhan said, ‘Go on, Mum.’
‘She appeared from nowhere. I hadn’t seen her coming. I stopped playing and got off the swing. “I didn’t hear you calling, Mum, honest I didn’t,” I was saying. Instead, of screaming at me in the street, as she had many times, she said, “Hark at you,” and rubbed my head. She took my hand and gave me a coin. “Em, get yourself a ha’penny-worth of ice,” she said – and smiled at me. Smiled. I ran down to the Italian shop on St John Street and felt like I was going to burst in the sunlight.’
‘So she wasn’t always a dragon.’
‘Yes, she was. But just briefly, she seemed, I don’t know – normal. Maybe life eased up for a time in Rawstorne Street.’ Emmeline smiled. ‘It was the only time I remember feeling special.’
Siobhan thought her mother was going to cry. She stepped round the table and put a hand on Emmeline’s shoulder.
Emmeline shook her head slowly. ‘You know, when I walk down Rawstorne Street now I sometimes remember her warmth that afternoon. And I like to think that suppressed inside my mother’s desperation was a woman who, despite it all, loved us.’