Hearts in the Hard Ground

By G. V. Anderson

Following the death of her mother, Fiona buys a new house in order to start a new chapter of her life, one with fewer reminders of painful memories. Unbeknownst to Fiona, this house has a melancholy history, and slightly more ghosts than she anticipated. In learning to live with her unexpected companions and their losses, Fiona might find a way to make peace with her own.

I bought a slim Edwardian terrace with the money Mum left me. It declared itself a house of dead things right away. Old houses can’t help doing that. The years accumulate inside them, dense as tree rings. On move-in day, I found a stain darkening the floorboards of the master bedroom — grim expulsions that had soaked through the carpet and underlay — while, downstairs, the handyman extracted a rotting seagull from the flue.

I buried the sad little creature in the frozen soil of my garden. I even made a cross out of two bits of cardboard and marked the date: the second of November.

It rose from the grave a day later, flying through the guest bedroom window and landing smack on the floor. I tried driving the gull out but you forget how big those fuckers are. In the end, I slammed the window shut and locked the door to trap it inside.

A few uneasy days passed. I drank a cup of tea in the garden and wondered if I had the heart to bash my first houseguest over the head with a poker. Wrapped in one of Mum’s lumpy cardigans, I toed the shallow grave I’d dug between the snowdrops. My thumb still bore blisters from the trowel’s handle, the earth had been so solid.

A stray tabby watched from the roof of my shed. I cluck-clucked my tongue — hello, puss-puss — and stretched my fingers, and he deigned to extend his chin for a scratch. The warmth of another living thing: how long since I’d felt that?

Since Mum. Months ago.

Have you ever lived on your own, after living almost forty years with someone else? It’s eerie. It’s like sitting alone in your own head for the first time. The free hours stretch on forever when you don’t have someone else to worry over, and you wonder what you could possibly fill them with. What are your interests, your hobbies? You hardly know yourself. I brought someone back to the house one night — a man, because I didn’t dare deviate from the familiar — and when he asked how to make me come, I couldn’t say. I’d forgotten what I liked.

Who was I?

After he’d let himself out, I sat on the dishevelled bed and didn’t move for hours. I couldn’t comprehend this body as me, mine. It had always been a thing, a vehicle to get from one chore to another, one neurologist appointment to the next. I pinched the flab of my thigh but it barely hurt. Lifeless meat.

In the garden, the tabby had had enough. He mooched off, taking his warmth with him. I finished my tea and watched the gull throw itself repeatedly against the upstairs window. Its feathers left oily impressions on the inside of the glass.

Bash, bash, crunch.

Why did I have to pick a fossil to live in? I bit my lip, knowing why: a new build wouldn’t suit. Too pristine, too impersonal. I’d craved a broken house.

My new neighbours unlocked their patio door. The guy tutted, said something about hammering, hammering for days on end. He was talking about that bloody bird. I darted inside before he collared me, setting my mug on the counter and grabbing a pair of old rubber gloves. I took the stairs at a run before I lost my nerve.

Bash, bash, crunch.

I turned the lovely cast-iron key in the lock and stepped into the guest bedroom. The gull was tottering about on the floor, one wing set at a sickening angle. Soil smeared the walls. Spreading my hands, I tried to herd the creature into a corner. The webbing of its feet had rotted away, leaving spiny toes that snagged easily in the floorboards. Silent and pathetic, it stumbled. I seized the chance to scoop up its bony little body.

All right, shh, you’re all right.

I was grateful for the rubber gloves. Up close I saw and smelt the unmistakable signs of decay. Joints held together by skin. Eyeless. Tongueless. So fragile it might crumble to dust in my hands. A dead thing, indeed.

Its legs paddled uselessly, exhausted yet too scared to stop.

I did that. I caused that fear.

Okay, I whispered, keeping hold of it. Shh, you’re all right. My vision swam with guilty tears. I thought I felt its heart going like the clappers but it was just the pulse in my own fingers.

You think you’re a kind person, you know? You grow up hearing people, strangers, say aren’t you a nice girl? You drop your change into collection boxes for RICE, say hello to the homeless; you hold doors open for the elderly. It’s kindness at arm’s length, but still, you tell yourself you are kind. Slowly, time and circumstance erode your conviction: you hope you are kind. You’re impatient with your mum when her mind starts to go. She fumbles with buttons, eating utensils, her knitting, and it’s irritating because you know she’s better than this — she was whip-smart not five years earlier, beating you at Countdown. And it’s unfair, too, because you’ve only just started to catch glimpses of what your relationship could become. Lines have been crossed, such as the first swear word that doesn’t earn you a smack; the first dirty joke. The first time sharing a bottle of wine and talking frankly about sex. You have to yank her out of someone’s way in the supermarket because she’s staring into space again, blocking the vegetable aisle, and though she soon forgets, you replay it over and over in your head, more violent each time until you expect to see bruises on her arm where there are none.

Did I pull her so hard she stumbled?

Did she grow as pitiful, as frightened, as this bird when I locked her bedroom door to stop her wandering out at night? If she fretted, if she tried the door or the window or ever cried out in wordless confusion, I didn’t hear her.

I didn’t want to.

There was no use apologising for something she couldn’t remember so I atoned by painting her nails. I seemed to paint her nails every day. In the few rudderless minutes between one layer of varnish and the next, I used to say, Mum? You okay?

What I really needed to ask is: Mum, am I kind? Am I kind anymore?

I brought the dead bird up to my bowed forehead. I’m sorry I locked you in, I murmured. With the gull tucked safely under one arm, I opened the window. Frigid sea air rushed in and the gull launched itself out. It didn’t go far; just to the end of the garden. The house was clingy that way.

The gull returned with a beakful of twigs and installed himself in the utility room sink. On laundry day, the little sod liked to hop down and steal my socks. I appreciated the company, however dubious the smell. I hung tree-shaped air fresheners in there and hoped that would be the worst of it, but he turned out to be a harbinger.

A Marley, as I called him.

My new home needed caring for. Every old and rare thing does, no matter how well made.

You’d think Mum never died, the way I worked. I black-leaded the fireplaces, had the fanlight restored, and Brasso’d the doorknobs and hinges. I buffed woodwork in tight spirals the same way I’d rubbed lotion on Mum after a bath, and I scrubbed those stained floorboards in the master bedroom over and over until my hands cramped as if I’d been holding her down during one of her fits; and still the stain endured, and the brass dulled, forcing me to start over.

I was being unfair. Mum never asked to become a to-do list.

At least handling Marley prompted me to finally wash Mum’s cardigan, although when I pulled it out of the dryer, it didn’t smell right anymore. I hadn’t thought to save a bottle of her perfume. Meanwhile, the musk of my failed one-night stand refused to go away. I lay in bed thinking, Cheap aerosol and beer — what a miserable haunting. My laugh turned to a wet snort and suddenly I was crying.

That’s another thing about living alone: there’s only a house to comfort you. The creak of wood contracting in the cold, the bang of old pipes in the wall, the secret sounds you only hear when you’re awake in the early hours, soggy with grief.

You realise you know your new house about as well as you know yourself.

So, I dried my face and listened. More than one hundred years jostled within the house’s walls, confined and airless as a bell jar. Early morning frost glittered on the window pane behind my vanity, washing the room in a beryl haze while the night’s last, weak shadows played tricks: the notches in the base of the bedroom door seemed like creeping fingers, eldritch and extra-knuckled, reaching up through the gap.

I turned my reading lamp on. It was no trick.

The fingers scraped down the wood, leaving trails of something black. Whatever owned those fingers pounded on the door, spraying splinters across the bed, and when the door didn’t give, a thick, angry boiling sound started up on the landing. Like a child, I threw the covers over my head. Worse; so much worse. My mind was all too eager to invent what I couldn’t see.

In the sober light of day, the scratches on the door looked terrible. That’s what truly unnerved me. If it could mark the house, it could mark me.

Whenever I was scared about Mum, information had been a comfort. Prognosis. Treatment plans. Cause of death. Facts gave me a sense of control. I rang the estate agent far from the house, where reception was better; from the city’s memorial garden, actually. I visited every Sunday. It didn’t matter that Mum’s ashes were scattered in the harbour so there was nothing of her there. You feel like a shitty daughter if you can’t find time to stare at a stone marker once a week. Anyway, the woman who took the call introduced herself as Annika, covering compassionate leave for the guy I’d always dealt with. His mum had passed away too, she sighed, and I felt a stab of sympathy.

Annika took a steadying breath — she was nervous, a temp; perhaps she felt she’d crossed some professional line, divulging her colleague’s loss. She asked how she could help. I asked who’d died in the house. Besides the previous owner, Claire Dockett, of course; when I made my offer, I was told in the interest of full disclosure that she’d collapsed in the master bedroom. My bedroom.

Sordid murders? She laughed brightly. We’d have to tell you something like that before now.

Oh, yeah, I said — I turned my back on Mum’s stone marker, surprised to find myself smiling. Annika’s laughter spilled out so naturally only to be tucked away again. Sunny patches glowing then quickly fading on an overcast day — Sorry. Yeah, no, I knew that. I’m just interested in the history, really.

Why, have you seen something? A conspiratorial chuckle. The distant zip-zip of a mouse wheel.

The exorcist is due next week, I joked — then gulped, because maybe an exorcism was something I should seriously consider. I mentioned the staining in the master bedroom to cover the awkward pause and she made a sound of sympathetic disgust before finding the relevant file. As it turned out, Claire Dockett had inherited the house from her cousins, the Bryants, who’d done plenty of living during their time there: three generations had had sex, given birth, slept, sickened and died in the house over a span of ninety years. Annika found a record of one child, Charlie Bryant, who fell to his death from the landing in 1967. As she read the newspaper clipping aloud, I pictured the claret-and-grey tiles in the hallway. A perfect match for blood and brain matter. Apparently, the police had suspected his aunt, a spinster who’d been obliged to hang around as companion, nurse and nanny to the family. That part sounded uncomfortably familiar.

I thought you said no sordid murders.

Annika laughed. The aunt was never charged.

Uh-huh…She didn’t die there too, did she?

No. It says here that she relocated to Eastbourne.

I rubbed my face and said, Thanks. That’s really helpful.

Except it wasn’t. I trudged home, hands deep in my pockets and my chin tucked into my scarf, with more questions than before; and as long as the haunting continued, there was no chance of sleep. Zombie birds, I could deal with — Marley, with his penchant for socks, had made himself quite the lovable pest since I chucked him out of the window — but the entity that resided on the landing was different. I didn’t dare take pills. Every time my eyelids grew heavy, the banging would start, once so hard a hairline crack snaked down the door like lightning.

I tried to communicate with it. All those insipid daytime-TV ghost hunts I’d watched with Mum had shown me how to make a spirit board. Marley ‘helped’ by pecking the pen nib as it ran across the card, to my great amusement. However, the upside-down tumbler remained motionless. My Dictaphone recorded nothing but static, broken by my own breathing.

I believed it was the ghost of little Charlie Bryant, the boy who’d fallen from the landing. I was wrong; his manner of haunting would be quite different. Nevertheless, despite my exhaustion, I took special care every morning to greet him by name, and to hop across the hallway floor, hoping not to land, by chance, where his head had.

As if I could possibly know that yet.

They say a child’s laughter is a beautiful thing. Well, see how beautiful you find it the first time you hear a giggle outside your bedroom door at three in the morning. You try listening to the patter of little feet followed by the startled cry and crack below, so like the dry pop of Mum’s wrist when she took that fall. I’d finally learnt to bear the assault on my bedroom door, and now I had giggle, shriek, smash, on repeat every fucking night. Can’t you give it a rest? I yelled, whipping open the bedroom door just as a waist-high blur dashed past.

I thought I could stop him at first. I risked the long-fingered ghost on the landing for him, kneeling, arms wide, braced to catch him as if he were mine. He ran through me for two weeks before I realised it made no difference: he was an echo, destined to perish as the original had done in 1967. I bought ear plugs on the way home that day — and a bottle of wine, after a moment’s hesitation. Something to knock me out, I said to the guy at the till, which earned me a smirk. The last time I’d bought myself alcohol, I’d had to show ID. It depressed me a bit that he didn’t even need to look twice to clock my age.

Standing on my doorstep, key rasping in the lock — I remember it was a cold, damp December afternoon; gaudy Christmas lights shimmered and bled across the wet pavements and the canvas bag holding my bottle of wine pulled seductively at my fingers — I heard someone call my name.

Fiona? Fiona Parkman?

I turned, door cracked open. Uh-huh?

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